Why a photo of a little boy inspired this mom to turn her town into a refugee sanctuary.

She's changing minds by keeping the issue a conversation rather than a debate.

Mary Poole was breastfeeding her 9-month-old son when she was horrorstruck by the image of this refugee boy:

The body of Alan Kurdi being taken out of the ocean. All photos provided by Starbucks.

The boy was 3-year-old Alan Kurdi. In the summer of 2015, he drowned along with his mother and brother as they were attempting to escape war-torn Syria.


While holding her own son in her arms, the image was too much for Poole to bear. It simply broke her heart.

That was the moment she became compelled to do something in her town of Missoula, Montana for these fleeing families looking for solace and safety.

In 2016, Poole started Soft Landing — a nonprofit designed to help welcome refugees and integrate them into the community.

Missoulians arguing over Soft Landing's refugee plans.

Its beginnings, however, were more than a little bumpy.

Despite there being a number of compassionate Montanans willing to welcome refugees with open arms, many others remained skeptical. And they weren't alone.

Montana was one of only two states that didn't participate in the refugee resettlement. The news and unjustified alarmism on social media platforms planted fear of the "unknown immigrant" into the minds of many Montanans. Needless to say, that fear wasn't easy to dislodge.

But that didn't stop Poole. She was determined to find a way to broach the subject.

Mary talking to her neighbors at a town meeting.

"I don’t think anyone here is the 'racist,' 'bigot,' 'hater' that people are getting called," said Poole to members of her community at a town meeting.

Her patience and compassion eventually made many of the less supportive citizens more receptive to her mission.

"It never became about convincing anyone to wholeheartedly agree that I was right and they were wrong," says Poole.

Poole talking with a neighbor about the refugee issue in Missoula.

It was simply about showing the people who were distrustful of her mission that refugees aren't looking for anything other than sanctuary.

She regularly sits down and has conversations with Montanans who are feeling uneasy about the refugee resettlements. She listens to their concerns and offers any advice she can. Often just being heard is enough to put folks at ease. Even if they're still on the fence about refugees in general, they become more receptive to Poole's initiative.

“The only thing that I can hope is that when you meet that [refugee] family you can say, ‘Gosh, they’re pretty normal folks,’” said Poole to her neighbors.

One such family that Soft Landing helped bring into Missoula were the Abdullahs from Syria.

Poole meeting with the Abdullahs.

Like so many others, the Abdullah family had to leave their home due to escalating conflict.

“Life became horrific, not only difficult," explains husband and father Jaber Abdullah. "We were all forced to leave. Nobody chose to leave.”

Thanks to the 200 Soft Landing volunteers, however, the Abdullahs have received a warm welcome and are adjusting nicely to life in Missoula.

Poole with a little refugee boy.

The Soft Landing volunteers teach classes, set up apartments, manage in-kind donations, and a number of other things that help refugees, like the Abdullahs, acclimate to their new environment. And so far they've welcomed more than 120 refugees from Eritrea, Congo, Iraq, and Syria.

But it's not just about supporting the refugees — it's about supporting Missoulians who are still on the fence about this whole mission.

The conversation to keep pushing the refugee agenda forward is challenging and ongoing, but for Poole, it's more than worth it.

Refugees playing soccer in Missoula in honor of World Refugee Day.

Especially when it leads to softening views and more receptive neighbors.

"I’ve sat down with people who’ve told me to my face, ‘I will never agree with you, but I’ll be the first to extend a hand when someone gets here,’” says Poole.

With an issue that's as contentious as the refugee crisis, that's more than half the battle.

Learn more about Poole's work here:

Upstanders: From War to Montana

She had never met a refugee, but she mobilized her community to welcome dozens of them.

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