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Billings prepping for more than 100 refugees, including some from Afghanistan

Downtown Billings
Posted at 6:34 PM, Sep 13, 2023

Beginning in January, more than 100 refugees will be moving into Billings, according to the nonprofit Nations to Neighbors, which is aiding in resettlement.

The refugees will be from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela and Honduras. (Editor's note Sept. 14: Nations to Neighbors initially said Wednesday the majority of refugees would be Afghans, but later stated they would come from the four countries.)

The influx of refugees coincides with the state's recent approval to open up a resettlement office in Billings. It will be the second resettlement office in the state, following one that opened in Missoula in 2021.

Nations to Neighbors coordinator Nancy Van Maren said that this program began when four Afghan families came to Billings after the country's government collapsed and forced thousands of refugees to flee in 2021. She said those first refugees successfully integrated into the community.

"We welcomed a number of families into Billings and had great success," Van Maren said. "Every single one of the resettled families is employed, providing for their family, their English is improving, and they are contributing to society."

The United States began accepting refugees following the fall of Afghanistan in 2021, when U.S. forces left the country following a war that had stretched for two decades. After U.S. soldiers were gone, the country was left in chaos, and fighters representing Afghanistan's hardlin Muslim leadership, the Taliban, took over the U.S.-supported government within days. Thousands of Afghans, many of whom had aided the U.S., fled the country, fearing for their lives after the Taliban seized control.

Around 100,000 Afghan refugees have resettled in the United States in the past two years, according to State Department figures.

In Billings, the first refugees that came to town were successfully integrated and a big reason why Billings got approved to bring in 100 more refugees between January and September of 2024. Van Maren said that the families will be brought in periodically so that the city can slowly bring them into the community.

"They are doing it as a pace that works for the community and for the refugees that arrive," Van Maren said. "This effort got the attention of a resettlement agency that's been approved to open a resettlement office in Billings."

A number of questions remain unanswered, including where the office will be located, where the refugees are currently and where they will live.

Van Maren said the new resettlement office will offer resources to the refugees to help make their transition more comfortable.

"It's a win for them because they are safe and in a very welcoming community," Van Maren said. "It's a win for Billings because there is diversification and it just enriches our community."

In Missoula, safety concerns for the community arose after the refugees arrived.One refugee, 19-year-old Zabihullah Mohmand, was charged with felony rape after he allegedly assaulted a woman outside a downtown bar. This incident sparked an outcry, even prompting Gov. Greg Gianforte to ask the Biden administration to put a halt to refugees in Montana without further vetting.

Van Maren realizes concerns could arise in Billings also over a number of issues, as the nonprofit is unsure of how many children make up the 100 refugee total. This happening at a time when, the three Billings high schools are already the biggest in the state, with two of the three being over functional capacity.

Superintendent Erwin Garcia said that while handling the additional students will be difficult, it will only add to the student experience.

"It's challenging, but it's the right thing to do and it's the humane thing to do," Garcia said.

Garcia said that the district is already prepping for their arrival. Conversation has begun over creating a newcomer center at the Lincoln Center where the new students can attend school when they initially arrive.

"They can be at the Lincoln, and we can teach them English and we can teach them the culture," Garcia said. "We are preparing ourselves to be good neighbors and to allow these people to not only take advantage of this beautiful country, but also that they are empowered to be functional members of society."

Van Maren said that the refugees won't be admitted to the country before undergoing 36 months of extensive screening with federal agencies. That vetting includes background checks, in-person interviews and medical screenings.

"They are the most highly vetted immigrants in the entire system of immigration in the United States," Van Maren said.

It's an intense process, but one that Van Maren believes will ensure a great addition to the city of Billings.

"I would say it's an honor and it's a privilege what we are about to embark on," Van Maren said.

Editor's note (Sept 14): This story has been updated to reflect that the refugees will come from multiple countries, not just a majority from Afghanistan