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Refugee Resettlement Evokes Fear, Debate In Montana


For the first time in decades, refugees are being resettled in Missoula, Mont. This might not be remarkable if it weren't for the response. People outside of Missoula, many in more rural parts of Montana, are outraged at the possibility that Muslim refugees are headed to Big Sky Country. The resettlement of Syrian refugees in particular is controversial nationwide. And in Montana, it's fueling fear and conspiracy theories. All that before any Syrians have come to Missoula. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji went to Montana to find out more.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: It's a recent weeknight, and this hotel conference room in Flathead County is crowded. We're about two-and-a-half hours north of where refugees are currently being resettled in Missoula. And people gathered here are concerned that Muslim refugees from Syria are not only coming, they'll disrupt their Christian way of life. The featured speaker is retired Air Force Lt. Col. Roy White. And parts of his talk sound like Islam 101.

ROY WHITE: So who knows what zakat means? Anybody know what zakat means? It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

MERAJI: Lt. Col. White's based in Texas, and he traveled to Montana's conservative Flathead County as a representative of the national organization ACT for America. ACT for America bills itself as a nonprofit working to combat Islamic terrorism. And White spends much of his time digging up references to Islam in public school textbooks for an arm of ACT for America called Truth in Textbooks.

WHITE: Islam means submission. And in the textbooks that we've seen, they are attempting to teach our children about the soft side of Islam and not the factual side about Islam.

MERAJI: But save a few facts about Islam, much of White's lecture is fiction. It's riddled with conspiracy theories about how Muslims who come to the US are spreading jihad and Sharia law.

PAT ARNONE: Sharia law goes against our constitution, goes against the laws of our land. It's being practiced in 20 states in this country.

MERAJI: More fiction, this time from audience member Pat Arnone, a self-described concerned grandma who's lived in this part of Montana for 40 years.

ARNONE: They want to convert us or they want to kill us.

WHITE: Right.

ARNONE: And there's another thing...

WHITE: Not all Muslims want to kill you. So let's just make that - there are many peaceful Muslims out there. But the doctrine says exactly what you just said, that's correct.

MERAJI: ACT for America has been singled out by watchdog groups as the largest anti-Muslim organization in the U.S. And those groups say you're not just hearing this kind of rhetoric about Islam and terrorism in small forums like this one. You're hearing it on the political stage nationally and in Montana, too.


RYAN ZINKE: As far as our refugees go, I'm a humanitarian. I understand it. But I've also seen it.

MERAJI: That's Montana's lone U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke in a debate with his Democratic opponent. Zinke's a Navy veteran.


ZINKE: And you should realize that women and children can be a threat if they're under the influence of evil - just like in San Bernardino, just like in Boko Haram. Four out of five terrorist attacks are conducted by children. They're under the influence, oftentimes drugged.

MERAJI: This is also fiction. There is no data to support the statement that 4 of 5 terrorist attacks are conducted by children. And it's something congressman Zinke - a Trump supporter - has said more than once. You'll find the refugee resettlement issue in the race for governor here, too. The Republican challenger sent out flyers bashing his opponent for supporting resettlement. On the flyer, a man's pictured holding an assault rifle, a kaffiyeh covering all but his eyes. It circulated the day the first refugee family got to Missoula. That family was Congolese.

Watchdog groups like Montana's Human Rights Network and the Southern Poverty Law Center say this kind of rhetoric can incite racially-motivated hate crimes. But Montanans who don't want to have anything to do with Syrian refugee resettlement say this has nothing to do with race or hate. It's about terrorism.

RAY HAWK: If you're thinking that these people in Montana are all racists, you're wrong - they're not.

MERAJI: That's Ray Hawk. He lives in Ravalli County with his wife Arlene. We're sitting at their kitchen table about an hour south of Missoula.

R. HAWK: I think it's fear-driven, I really do. I think it all boils down to that, to be honest with you.

ARELENE HAWK: You look at Montana, we really are not racist because we don't have a lot of different racial cultures.

R. HAWK: Well, you have the Indians here.

A. HAWK: Well, but they've been here all the time.

R. HAWK: Yeah. I see what you mean, yeah.

A. HAWK: And we've grown up with them.

MERAJI: Ravelli County is 96 percent white. And Hawk, the chair of the county commission, says it's also really conservative, unlike Missoula - a liberal college town. This past winter his commission held a public meeting to see how constituents felt about refugees coming to Montana. And Hawk, who's almost 80, says he's never seen a crowd that worked up in his life. And the man's used to crowds - he's a retired auctioneer.

R. HAWK: I mean, there was a lot of sentiment against those refugees. We have no way to know what you're getting. Like somebody bringing in a bowl of jelly beans and putting them on your table and say take all you want, but two of those in there are cyanide.

MERAJI: That's another refrain you're hearing this campaign season. Donald Trump Jr., a senior adviser to his father's campaign, said something similar on social media - only it was Skittles, not jellybeans. Vetting refugees is complicated, and takes nearly two years on average. And Syrians get additional screening. But without a hundred percent guarantee, Hawk doesn't want them in Montana. And his wife Arlene adds, terrorism isn't the only thing bothering her.

A. HAWK: Well, expecting us to conform to their culture, rather than they to Americanism.

R. HAWK: Yeah, they look at...

A. HAWK: We can't even say prayers in our own schools anymore. But yet, we can build mosques across the country.

MERAJI: As we said earlier, no Syrian refugees have come to Montana yet - so far, just Congolese families. And the International Rescue Committee is resettling them in Missoula, about an hour north of Ravalli County. Regardless, all this anxiety over Syrian refugees isn't just affecting people who support resettlement. It erupted in a pretty strange way for a local contractor. John King says it started on social media last spring.

JOHN KING: Somebody had taken a picture of some apartments that we were building down off of Tammany Lane, put them on Facebook and saying this is the temporary housing for those Syrian refugees that are coming to Ravalli County. And it's just escalated from there. And that's not what they were built for.

MERAJI: King showed me text messages and notes he's gotten in his mailbox threatening to hang him and destroy his property. And here's the irony - John King identifies as a conservative Republican. He's no fan of refugee resettlement, but says he's struggled to convince some people that he's not part of a conspiracy to house them in Ravalli County.

And so when people say to you still after all these months, why are you building this temporary housing, how do you respond to them?

KING: Well, I just tell them just your facts straight. It's not temporary housing for nobody. And it's going to be my fricking retirement someday. (Laughter) If they stay up, if they don't get burned down first.

MERAJI: Joking aside, King says he hasn't been able to sleep he's so worried about his family's safety and his business. But he also says he gets it. He completely gets why so many people are upset about refugee resettlement.

KING: These refugees - if they're Moslems or if they're Congo or whatever they are - are getting better treatment than us as United States citizens. And I really feel that's why they're lashing out. And they're lashing out at people like me, thinking that I'm getting all this free money through this administration to do fun stuff for these Moslems and that's not the case at all.

MERAJI: The International Rescue Committee plans to bring up to 150 refugees to Missoula in the upcoming year. Despite all the drama outside Missoula, resettling Syrian refugees is still a part of that plan. And just last month, the Missoula city council passed a resolution saying the town's committed to doing its part to make the U.S. a welcoming environment for refugees. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.


That report was produced in collaboration with Montana Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.