It's the first day of school in Missoula, Mont., and Elongo Gabriel, a Congolese refugee, is dropping off his young son and two daughters.
A proud father, he has a wide grin. "For me it's like a dream to get a chance for my kids to study here," he says.
Getting here, to a safe place, has been a long and traumatic saga. His family fled war in their home country where Elongo worked for a human rights NGO. They then spent six years in Tanzania in a destitute refugee camp, with little to no schooling available and on most days only cassava to eat.
Finally, in July, after their paperwork went through, they boarded a plane for the first time, flying to Dubai, then Los Angeles, then Montana the next day.
"It was a wonderful day for us," Elongo says. "We cannot forget that day."
Elongo is one of 330 refugees to be resettled since 2016 in Missoula, a college town of 75,000 people ringed by mountains and snow-fed rivers. But his family is also among a dwindling number of refugees approved to come to the U.S. this year. While there's been much attention on migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, elsewhere the number of refugees fleeing war and other crisis being allowed into the country is the lowest it's been since 1980.
About 30,000 refugees are expected to be resettled in 2019, down from 110,000 in 2016. Now, the White House is weighing whether to cut that number to zero, a decision that is expected by Oct. 1.
"What we're facing here is nothing short of a total refugee ban," says Danielle Grigsby, interim director of Refugee Council USA.
An advocacy group representing NGO refugee resettlement agencies across the country, the Council recently released a report showing that 51 resettlement programs have closed and another 41 offices have suspended services in 23 states.
'Mostly white faces'
For now, Montana's office, run by the International Rescue Committee — one of nine State Department contractors — is open. But these are uncertain times, says director Jen Barile. Under new Trump administration rules, the office has to resettle at least 100 refugees a year to keep federal funding. They'll hit that mark this year, but next year is up in the air, especially if the annual cap were to go zero.
Barile, a longtime social worker in the city, says refugee resettlement is popular and working well here and across rural America. For one, there are a lot of available jobs right now. And she says in smaller towns like this people watch out for each other.
"A lot of the families tell us that they get so much more support here in Missoula than their family or friends in larger cities where the community or the staff don't have as much time to devote to them," Barile says.
Missoula is known as Montana's more cosmopolitan liberal enclave. But like much of the rest of Montana, it's not diverse. Its population is more than 90% white.
"Coming to a place where you're going to see mostly white faces is hard," Barile says.
Winters are also long and cold. The nearest African grocery store is a seven-hour drive away in Seattle. And housing is expensive. But there have been some early success stories, according to advocates, in the years since city leaders first approached the State Department about restarting a local resettlement program that had been shuttered since the 1990s.
The Congolese community recently opened a church. There's a popular refugee soccer tournament and monthly pop up style "supper clubs" with food cooked by Eritrean and Syrian refugees. And local schools just got grants to support refugee students. Only about 1.5% of the entire school district here is comprised of ELL, or English Language Learners.
"I personally feel like it's our responsibility to help those in need," says Shirley Lindberg, the district's ELL coordinator. "It would break my heart to see it just stop."
Lindberg says since 2016, the district scrambled to train teachers. They hired tutors and interpreters — not an easy task finding people who are fluent in Swahili for example in Montana. Lindberg says she and other staff and many students have "drank in" the culture and language brought by the refugees.
"This has impacted so many people in our community in a positive way," she says. "It's opened up their eyes to other cultures, I have seen so many people changed because they got to work with refugee families."
Putting 'American citizens first'
The farther you travel outside Missoula though, the less likely you are to hear statements like those. The country's rural-urban divide appears to be just as pronounced in Montana as anywhere else.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, when news reports first came about the Missoula office reopening, opposition to refugee resettlement roared in a pair of western Montana counties. The Republican-controlled state legislature also tried to pass a bill that would have banned Islamic Law in the state — Montana's Muslim population is less than 1%.
In Ravalli County, south of Missoula, amidst the heated 2016 presidential campaign, commissioners passed a resolution opposing refugee resettlement.
Three years on, at the local fair, just as many people appeared to be wearing red Trump hats as cowboy hats. Once a collection of sleepy farming towns and apple orchards, the Bitterroot has boomed lately with retirees and conservative transplants looking for their slice of Montana.
"I appreciate the president taking care of the United States and making the citizens of the United States of America his priority," says Theresa Manzella, a Republican state representative.
Manzella is working the local GOP booth, where there's a gun raffle and Trump 2020 stickers and T-shirts for sale. She says the president is doing the right thing by focusing on illegal immigration along the southern U.S. border first. After that's addressed, she says, maybe then the country can revisit letting in refugees or sending more support to them in their own countries.
"People are concerned, people have boundaries and I think appropriate boundaries," Manzella says. "They want to protect their lives, their livelihoods, the lives of their family members."
Living in Further Limbo
That kind of nativism President Trump rose to power on often resonates in more rural areas like this, particularly in the northern states that tend to be less diverse.
Ironically though if the Montana resettlement office were to close, refugees who are already here could be left mostly on their own. That would worry people on both sides of the political divide, albeit for very different reasons.
In Missoula, the upheaval in federal refugee policy could upend a community that's just starting to get its footing. Refugees who fled war and famine are now caught in the middle of a much larger national political debate.
At the apartment she shares with her husband and two young kids, Syrian refugee Shatha Abdelber recounts her story of fleeing her home country's devastating civil war. Her family spent four years living in Jordan before successfully being accepted into the U.S. as refugees two years ago.
Speaking through an interpreter, Abdelber says the community here has been welcoming and she feels much safer. The local resettlement office just started helping her begin the paperwork to try and bring her elderly parents — who are still in Jordan — to the U.S. to reunite the family.
That's now likely on hold.
We may not see our family again, Abdelber says in Arabic, our future is uncertain.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Decreasing the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers into the U.S. has been a hallmark of the Trump administration. We hear mostly about people at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is also affecting refugees from wars and humanitarian crises. The number of refugees being resettled in the U.S. is now the lowest it's been since 1980. The White House is weighing cutting that even further. And resettlement programs that support those refugees are starting to close. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on one popular program in Montana that faces possible closure.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's the first day of school in Missoula and a new beginning for Elongo Gabriel, a Congolese refugee.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you girls ready? You say bye to Papa.
SIEGLER: Elongo is dropping off his young son and two daughters. A proud father, he has a wide grin.
ELONGO GABRIEL: For me, it's like a dream to get a chance for my kids to study here.
SIEGLER: Getting here, to a safe place, was a long saga. They fled war in their home country, where Elongo worked for a human rights NGO, then spent the next six years in Tanzania in a destitute refugee camp. In July, their first time on a plane, they flew to Los Angeles and arrived in Montana the next day.
GABRIEL: It was a very wonderful day for us, and we cannot forget that that day.
SIEGLER: Elongo is one of 330 refugees resettled since 2016 in Missoula, a college town of 75,000 people ringed by mountains and snow-fed rivers. This is Montana's more cosmopolitan, liberal enclave. But like much of the rest of the state, it's not diverse. Jen Barile heads the Missoula office of the International Rescue Committee. It's one of nine State Department contractors that resettle refugees in the U.S.
JEN BARILE: Coming to a place where you're going to see mostly white faces is hard.
SIEGLER: But Barile says refugee resettlement is working well here and across rural America. There are jobs to be filled. And she says in smaller towns like this, people watch out for each other.
BARILE: A lot of the families tell us that they get so much more support here in Missoula than maybe their family or friends in larger cities, where maybe the community or the staff don't have as much time to devote to them.
SIEGLER: But under new Trump administration rules, this office has to resettle at least a hundred refugees a year to keep its funding. And that's likely going away - and not just here in Montana. More than 50 resettlement programs across the country have already had to close, and many more will follow if, as expected, the White House further reduces the number of refugees allowed in each year. Refugees fleeing war, famine are caught in the middle of a national political fight.
Shatha Abdelber watches her two kids play in the small apartment she rents in a low-income housing complex in Missoula.
(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING, CROSSTALK)
SIEGLER: She fled the Syrian civil war to neighboring Jordan. Her parents are still in Jordan. The local resettlement office just started helping her try to get her parents to the U.S. That now is likely on hold.
SHATHA ABDELBER: (Foreign languages spoken).
SIEGLER: Speaking through an interpreter, Abdelber says, "of course life is better here. It's safe. "But," she says, "we may not see our family again, and our future is uncertain."
The upheaval in federal refugee policy could upend a community that's just starting to feel like they're settling in. There's now a popular refugee soccer tournament, monthly pop-up supper clubs with food made by Syrians and Eritreans, and the Congolese community just opened a church.
SHIRLEY LINDBERG: It would break my heart to see it just stop.
SIEGLER: Shirley Lindberg is the English language learner coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools.
LINDBERG: This has impacted so many people in our community in a positive way. It's opened up their eyes to other cultures. I have seen so many people changed because they got to work with refugee families.
SIEGLER: Now, the farther you travel from Missoula, though, the less likely you are to hear something like that. President Trump won Montana easily, partly due to a big turnout in more rural places like the Bitterroot Valley, an hour drive south of the city. Once a collection of sleepy farming towns and apple orchards, the Bitterroot has boomed lately with retirees and conservative transplants looking for their slice of Montana.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO OF A KIND, WORKIN' ON A FULL HOUSE")
DENNIS ROBBINS: (Singing) Her strong country loving is hard to resist. She's my easy lovin' woman. I'm her...
SIEGLER: At the Ravalli County Fair, you see people wearing just as many red Trump hats as cowboy hats. Theresa Manzella is working the local GOP booth where there's a gun raffle and Trump 2020 stickers and tees. She's a state legislator. She says President Trump is right to curtail refugee resettlements.
THERESA MANZELLA: So that's my first concern - is the health, welfare and safety of our own American citizens.
SIEGLER: Three years ago, when the Missoula refugee program was restarted, Ravalli County passed a resolution opposing their relocation to the area. Another county north of Missoula followed. Manzella says the president is doing the right thing by focusing on illegal immigration first. Then, she says, maybe the country can revisit letting in refugees.
MANZELLA: People are concerned. People have boundaries - and I think appropriate boundaries. They want to protect their lives, their livelihoods, the lives of their family members.
SIEGLER: This sort of nativism resonates in rural states like this. Ironically, though, if the Montana resettlement office closes, refugees who are already here could be left mostly on their own. That will worry people on both sides of the political divide, if for very different reasons.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Missoula. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.