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How a refugee turned mayor seeks to transcend politics of divisiveness

Why We Wrote This

As the world celebrates the life and work of a US president from a storied political family, we offer this read on a local politician with a surprising backstory – of his rise to mayor, so far – that’s the story of an America constantly renewing and refreshing itself. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins stands in front of his office building in Helena, Mont. He fled violence in Liberia 28 years ago.

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How hard is it to become the first black mayor in America’s least black state? Not nearly as hard as surviving a civil war. Just ask Wilmot Collins, who was subsisting on toothpaste and mayonnaise laced with sugar in Liberia, before a run-in with an armed rebel prompted him and his fiancée to flee in 1990. They eventually landed in Helena, Mont., where last year Mr. Collins won the mayoral election by 344 votes. To backers of more liberal immigration policies, Collins’s dramatic story speaks to the potential for newcomers to give back to their new country, tapping into the fortitude forged in tribulation and channeling it into educational pursuits, community work, or even public service. He has helped reopen Montana to refugee resettlement, despite pushback from critics concerned about national security and the potential drain on the welfare system. Jen Barile, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Missoula, Mont., says, “It’s just super inspiring to the refugees here that we can say, ‘Did you know that Wilmot Collins is a refugee from Liberia and now he’s mayor?’ ”

“You!” the rebel fighter pointed at Maddie Saab. “Come here!”

She and her fiancé, Wilmot Collins, knew it was dangerous to venture into the streets of Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in search of food.

But as the front lines of the civil war pushed further into the city, they had little choice. Their relatives’ home had been raided, and they were starving, eating toothpaste and licking mayonnaise laced with sugar off the palms of their hands for sustenance.

Now Ms. Saab stood in front of a man whose fellow comrades had killed and dismembered the president of Liberia just weeks before.

“You’re the president’s girlfriend,” she recalls the rebel saying to her. An AK-47 rested between his legs.

“No, sir,” Saab said, avoiding eye contact and motioning with her other hand to Mr. Collins to stay silent. “You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.” Finally, the rebel relented.

“You guys can go,” he said. “I’m tired of killing.”

They decided to leave the country two days later, on a Friday in October 1990. Collins’s mother handed them each $5 and said, “Go, and God be with you.” They headed to the port and waited in line for three days without food or water. On Sunday night a soldier tapped Saab: You, you’re going. Collins insisted on joining her on board, and the soldier finally relented in letting him leave, too.

They had no idea where the ship was headed.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Helena (pop. 31,000) sprawls toward the foothills.

Today, 28 years later, Collins spends his days with less-harrowing concerns. As the mayor of Helena, Mont. – one of few former refugees to become the chief executive of an American city – he finds his time taken up with replacing sewer pipes, debating outdoor smoking regulations, and ensuring that firetrucks can get through the city’s snowy streets. 

Now nearly one year in office, the novice politician with a rich baritone voice and hearty laugh approaches his job with the enthusiasm of someone who has overcome a tumultuous past and is trying to make the most of his future in an adopted land. 

A quarter century ago, Collins and Saab could not possibly have fathomed that he would one day become the mayor of the capital city of the least black state in America. Or that he would help Montana reopen a refugee resettlement program just months before Donald Trump, touting the need for “extreme vetting” of refugees, would win the presidential vote in the state by a 20-point margin.

But his very rise and visibility puts him at the nexus of a deepening debate over the role of refugees in America and a heated conversation over immigration – intensified by the caravan of Latin American asylum-seekers. To backers of more liberal immigration policies, Collins’s dramatic story speaks to the potential for newcomers to give back to their new country, tapping into the fortitude forged in tribulation and channeling it into educational pursuits, community work, and, in his case, even public service.

But critics are unmoved. In an age of Islamist terrorism, they see refugees as a threat to US security and a potential drain on the economy and welfare system. They are unimpressed by one man’s story, no matter how inspiring. Some locals even see him as part of a broader internationalist movement to supplant America’s founding ideals.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins walks through downtown Helena during his lunch break.

The rancor over refugees comes as the Trump administration tightens restrictions on those trying to enter the United States. Fewer than 22,500 refugees were admitted to the country in fiscal year 2018, the lowest annual total since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980. That represents just half of the 45,000 refugee limit President Trump set for the year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this fall that the administration intended to lower the ceiling to 30,000 in 2019.

Administration officials describe the policy changes as necessary to more thoroughly screen refugees to protect national security and free up resources to deal with an unprecedented surge in asylum-seekers already in the US.

As Collins goes about his duties as a small-city mayor, while still doing his day job as a child protection specialist with the state, one thing seems certain: If he and his wife were standing in line to flee war today, they might well not make it to America. 

***

On the first morning after Collins and Saab pulled out of Monrovia’s port, the sounds of wailing and splashing echoed off the ocean as some passengers, realizing their relatives had died overnight, cast the bodies of loved ones overboard.

Saab was a mere 88 pounds. Collins, thin himself, was worried about the woman he had loved from that first day he saw her at a university in Liberia.

The ship docked in Ghana three days later. Collins used his $5 to get a taxi to the local branch of his employer, Save the Children, and Saab made a collect call to the only people she knew who might be able to help.

It was the middle of the night in Helena when the ringing phone jolted Joyce Nachtsheim awake. She and her husband, Bruce, had been waiting for this call for weeks. Saab, who lived with them as a high school exchange student in 1984, was like a daughter to them, and they had been worried ever since they saw news of war breaking out in Liberia.

“We’re safe; we’re out,” Saab told Ms. Nachtsheim. “But can you help us with money?”

“Oh, I want to help you with more than that,” her American mother replied. “I want to help you with your future.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins and his wife, Maddie (c.), enjoy a moment with Bruce and Joyce Nachtsheim of Helena, Mont. Maddie spent a year living with the Nachtsheims as a foreign exchange student in high school.

With help from the Nachtsheims’ representatives in Congress, they were able to secure Saab a student visa and a full-ride scholarship to a nursing program in Helena. She and Collins got married in the hope that he would be able to come with her, but the American embassy said no. On the eve of her departure in August 1991, the couple learned they were expecting a baby girl.

Collins told his wife to go anyway.

He ended up homeless on the streets of Ivory Coast, and they lost touch. Then, in an extraordinary turn, someone recognized Collins on the street. It was Bliss, his best friend from Catholic high school in Monrovia, whose family took him in.

Collins called his wife for the first time in months. “Hey, I’m alive,” he told her.

Then he started the screening process to come to America: first the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), then the State Department, then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then the FBI. His wife had to submit phone bills and their personal letters, and the INS wanted to “talk” to baby Jaymie by phone, even if it was just a squawk – all to verify Collins’s family ties in America. 

“Don’t let anybody fool you and say refugees aren’t vetted,” he says.

When Collins finally arrived in Helena in February 1994, he plunged into his new life. He strode into the governor’s office – which people can do in a small capital city like this – and introduced himself. He found a job within weeks. At the local theater, he starred as the slave in a production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

But not all was friendly. Some people resented the presence of the refugees from Africa. Soon after he arrived, someone painted KKK on the family’s rented garage, though the neighbors had already started cleaning it off by the time Collins finished calling the police. His church also sent a $5,000 anonymous donation so the couple could buy their own home. On another occasion, someone left a fake plane ticket in their mailbox with a monkey attached, saying “Go back to Africa.”

Collins just laughed. “They have no idea what it took for me to come to this country,” he says. “This is not going to scare me away.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maddie and Wilmot Collins eat dinner at home in Helena, Mont., after a long day at work.

It was harder when people targeted his teenage son, Bliss, the couple’s second child, whom they named after Collins’s high school friend. While working as a bank teller, Bliss had one customer tell him, “I don’t want you touching my money.”

Recalling that incident now brings tears to Collins’s eyes, but such racism never stopped him. He took up leadership positions in the community – coaching soccer, singing in his Methodist church choir, serving on the board of the United Way, joining the National Guard. He also started thinking seriously about running for mayor, a job he’d gotten to do for a day after putting down $75 at a silent auction. 

But it took some encouragement from his son to enter the 2017 race as an African-American in a state that has never had a black mayor (though it did have one before it officially became a state). Plus, the incumbent had now been in the job 16 years.

“That mayor is not better than you,” he recalls Bliss telling him. “Go in there and shine.”

Collins won by 344 votes.

***

When Mayor Collins comes back from lunch on a recent Wednesday, a young couple from Tennessee is waiting. Halfway across the country in Nashville, they’ve heard about this Liberian refugee-turned-mayor. They’re intrigued – so much so that they’re thinking of moving here. “I was so shocked you responded to my email,” says the husband, who didn’t want his name used so as not to tip off his current employer about the potential move.

Collins, impeccably dressed in a gray suit, crisp white shirt, and polished wingtips, seems eager to woo them to this wide Montana plain surrounded by folding hills and mountains. There have been only two murders since he moved here a quarter century ago, he tells them. In the winter, people leave cars running with the heat on while they go in to shop. And everybody knows everybody, just like back on the rubber plantation where he grew up in Liberia.

It’s also the kind of place where knocking on doors can make a difference. After 22 years of the city not expanding its firefighting force, Collins teamed up with the fire department to campaign for a $1 million public safety levy. The measure passed with 70 percent of the votes, and they were able to add six firefighters. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
'The Bullwhacker' statue in downtown Helena is a reminder of the town's gold rush days when traders were supplied by freight wagons pulled by oxen.

He is also working with the United Way and the Department of Veterans Affairs to address teenage and veteran homelessness, and the city has 80 new affordable housing units going in. “So that’s pretty decent for one year,” he says to the couple.

Former mayor Jim Smith says his successor seems to be off to a good start. “As near as I can tell, the garbage is being picked up, the streets are being plowed, I don’t think our rates for services have gone up too much,” he says.

Despite all the excitement around Collins, his managerial tasks can be rather prosaic. On this day, he politely tells the city manager to deny a request for free parking passes; reviews his schedule – whoops, he has double-booked the Cub Scouts on the same day as the Montana Nonprofit Association; and welcomes a new executive at the local Boeing plant, a first-generation American like himself. Collins braces her for the winter weather.

“My first job, I didn’t know people worked when it snowed,” he says, laughing.

Snow is a top concern at the afternoon administrative meeting attended by city councilors, officials, and members of the public, including someone’s granddaughter who wrote to him requesting permission to attend. A libertarian, a tavern owner, and a vaping advocate air their views on whether to allow smoking within 30 feet of businesses, sparring with young activists. As dusk falls, the conversation turns to projected costs to put in new sidewalks.

It’s 6:06 p.m. before they get to the snow plan, but Collins is determined. Before he had even taken the oath of office in January, his email inbox was stuffed with complaints about poor snow removal and slick roads. He got on it right away. “He doesn’t know what the hell snow is, but here he is fixing the problem,” says Gary Long, a high school classmate of Maddie’s.

At today’s meeting, Collins listens to proposals for a more proactive approach: moving from eight to 12 hour shifts, designating emergency snow routes, crafting new towing rules.

“I don’t care what we do; we’re not leaving it the way we had it,” he says. “But whatever we do, we must inform the public.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins (front, r.) holds his weekly open town meeting with local officials in Helena, Mont.

***

With his dramatic back story, Collins has developed a profile that extends well beyond Helena, which means he is both canonized for his triumph over adversity and a target for critics. In 2013, Angelina Jolie was slated to speak at the State Department on World Refugee Day but couldn’t make it. So organizers asked Collins to fill in. 

He scribbled out a speech en route to Washington, D.C., and was ushered into the Monroe Room at Foggy Bottom while waiting for the event to start. The setting couldn’t have been more apropos for a refugee from Monrovia, a city named after President James Monroe. Secretary of State John Kerry introduced him, and he spoke to a crowd of about 100 people.

Even before that appearance, Collins had become something of an unofficial ambassador for refugees, representing Montana in the UNHCR’s Refugee Congress.

But immigration remains a controversial topic in Montana. As recently as February 2016, some opponents of the US taking in more refugees held an “American security rally” in Missoula. Trump’s campaign was gathering momentum, and supporters were becoming increasingly outspoken about the security ramifications of President Barack Obama’s embrace of Middle Eastern refugees, mainly Syrians. 

The organizer of the event was Jim Buterbaugh of Whitehall, Mont. He drove his ’94 Ford truck hours through relentless snow to join more than 100 protesters, who held signs with mottoes like “Look at Germany.” Mr. Buterbaugh says his thinking back then, as well as today, is that the Middle East and other regions should take care of their own refugees. 

“Separating them from their country, separating them from their way of life, when you’ve got all these oil-rich countries ...  if they want to teach them to live off of welfare, they can teach them how to do it over there,” says Buterbaugh. He also feels it is too easy for refugees to create a false narrative about their lives to justify entry into the US. “They’re coming from a war, and they’re saying I’m so-and-so,” he says.

Buterbaugh appeared at a business luncheon a month after the protest along with Collins to present two different views on refugees. The event was organized by Mary Poole, a resident of Missoula, who has been trying to get the state to create a refugee resettlement program. 

“Refugees all over the country are doctors, nurses, and engineers that have contributed to this economy and this country,” Collins told the crowd, noting that the only “free” thing he had received as a refugee was a plane ticket, and he’d paid that back within six months.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maddie Collins, who is getting her doctorate to become a nurse practitioner, examines a patient at a clinic in Helena, Mont.

Collins is the target of criticism not just over refugees, but over his whole worldview. His most prominent detractor in Helena is Gina Satterfield, who owns a hair salon and has repeatedly railed against the mayor on Facebook, when her account is not suspended. An unabashed critic of Islam, she refers to the mayor as a “gateway” through which the US Constitution will be supplanted by a United Nations approach to governing, which she describes as heavily influenced by Muslim countries. She calls Collins a poster child for a broader social justice movement sharing similar ideals. “It’s not just him; he couldn’t do it by himself,” she says.

But Ms. Poole says it’s not just Islam people have a problem with, and she carries around a note to prove it. It was sent to her nonprofit, Soft Landing Missoula, and reveals overt racism. It says “Shame on you for bringing the dirty, illiterate refuse from foreign lands to our shores. It was the white man from Europe that built this once great nation.”

In such a climate, some were concerned for Collins’s safety when he ran for mayor, says Rachel Carroll Rivas, a volunteer who helped run the campaign. She was aware of anti-immigrant activity through her job with the Montana Human Rights Network but says retreating is never the answer.

“One of the most awesome things I’ve learned,” she says, “is that safety comes by being in the light ... and the safety comes not only for you but for all of those folks like you.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Congolese refugees Charles Lubeley and his wife, Nduba Kyabu, sort through donations with their daughter Patricia at Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit that helps refugees settle in Montana.

***

Montana also has many who support refugees. Hundreds of volunteers have approached Soft Landing to offer to work with new arrivals.  

Likewise, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which reopened an office in Montana after hearing from Poole and others in the community, has more than 200 family mentor volunteers. 

Since opening in July 2016, they have settled some 243 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Congo, and Eritrea. Most have found jobs within a few months, with employers ranging from the Holiday Inn to a construction firm that hired a female Iraqi engineer.

And they have a great role model in Helena, says Jen Barile, resettlement director for IRC Missoula. “It’s just super inspiring to the refugees here that we can say, ‘Did you know that Wilmot Collins is a refugee from Liberia and now he’s mayor?’ ”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Volunteer Charlie Devoe uses his own car to teach Eritrean refugee Yodit Aregawi how to drive in Missoula, Mont. The driver’s education lessons are one of the services offered by Soft Landing Missoula to help newcomers to the area.

Collins will be the first to say he didn’t accomplish this alone. On special occasions, his soulful voice resonates through his church as he embraces the congregation in a gospel song that encapsulates his journey:

Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is he ... I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, His eye is on the sparrow, Praise God, I know that He cares for me.

“I cry every time,” says Sharon Wolfe, a fellow congregant. “It’s really a testament to what a grateful spirit he has.”

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