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Helena, Montana Mayor Wilmot Collins came to the United States in 1994 from Liberia. His life journey is a true immigrant success story.
Days into the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid reports of a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport and thousands of refugees trying to flee the country, Mayor Wilmot Collins logged onto Twitter.
“When I was a refugee, of all places it was Helena, Montana that offered me and my family a second chance at life,” Collins wrote. “I will gladly support any and all federal efforts that offer the same beacon of hope to Afghan refugees and welcome them to Helena with the same grace I was shown.”
Collins, the first Black mayor elected in Montana since it became a state in 1889, came to the United States in 1994 at age 31 as a refugee from his native country of Liberia, then embroiled in the first phase of its civil war. As a result, his views on refugees are fairly straightforward—people in need of a new start should be able to find one, particularly in the case of Afghanistan, where America’s actions helped create the urgent need to flee.
“When I saw the people at the Kabul airport trying to leave, it brought back some memories that were tough for me,” he said. “It was hard. And so I felt it was necessary to show that Helena is a welcoming community.”
'We Have to Get Out'
The day that Collins decided to leave Liberia had not been that different from the days before it. The country had been at war for several years, and Collins, his mother and his now-wife Maddie Muna Collins were holed up in a spare room in a house near the American embassy in Monrovia.
Each morning, one member of the trio would venture out to look for food; that day, Collins said, he and Muna Collins, then his fiancee, went together. A day-long search turned up only a tube of toothpaste, which the couple split between themselves, slurping the minty gel like a snack. As they passed through the final checkpoint to return home, the couple was stopped by a soldier.
“My wife was interrogated, and after about 20 minutes, the soldier asked her, ‘Is that your man?’” Collins said. “And she said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘You’re lucky. I’m done killing today. I’m going to let you go.’”
Collins and his fiancee backed away from the soldier slowly. They kept their eyes on him, walking backwards, scared that if they turned to run, the soldier would shoot them in the back.
Safely back in their room, Collins turned to his mother and his fiancee. He’d heard that a peacekeeping ship from Nigeria, departing in the next few days, was allowing Liberians on board. He knew it was time to leave.
“I said, ‘This is it. I’m not going out anymore,’” he said. “I told them, ‘We have to get out of here, or we will die.’”
Collins’ mother declined to leave, but his sister and her family, also were living in Monrovia, agreed to make the trip. The group left for the port on a Friday morning and waited in line for days. Among the crowd of thousands, the couple lost contact with Collins’ sister, but boarded the ship on Sunday evening with his sister’s husband, their baby, and a cousin and his girlfriend.
“By that point, we had lost contact with our relatives, because the place was so packed,” Collins said. “There were an estimated 10,000 people on board. There was only standing room.”
The ship docked at Ghana after a three-day voyage, during which the couple went without food or water. They saw people die and watched families tip their deceased relatives into the sea. When they disembarked two days later, Collins went in search of a local branch of SOS Children’s Villages, an international organization he had worked for in Liberia. The director there asked Collins for identification. He had none.
“In Liberia, we couldn’t travel with IDs, because it could link us back to someone,” he said. “I couldn’t prove who I was, but I knew that some kids I had worked with had come on the first ship.”
If the children could identify Collins, the director agreed, he could come inside. When the children saw him, they started crying, which Collins thought at first was a happy reaction to reuniting with him safely after such a long time.
“But then I went to use the restroom, and for the first time in six months, I looked in a mirror,” he said. Months of malnourishment had left him severely emaciated; he’d later weigh in at just over 90 pounds. “I understood, then, why they were crying.”
SOS Children’s Villages drove Collins back to the port to pick up his family. The group stayed with the organization for three months, recuperating and considering their options for resettlement. Muna Collins had previously studied nursing in Montana as part of an African exchange program. She had often spoken of the state’s beauty, and suggested that they try to relocate there. She contacted the family that had hosted her during the program, who helped her secure a nursing scholarship at a nearby college. They said she could return to their Helena home.
The couple married in Ghana. Two weeks before Muna Collins was scheduled to leave, she learned she was pregnant.
“We talked about it, and decided it was best that she still go,” Collins said. “So we agreed she would go, and I would stay.”
Their separation would last for nearly three years. Finding a way to join his wife in America was, Collins said, “almost impossible.” He registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency, hoping to join his wife as a refugee. His daughter was born while he worked through that process, his presence in her life limited to phone calls and photographs. Eventually, by virtue of his daughter’s citizenship, Collins finally was allowed to join his family.
At that time, “Liberians were able to join their relatives in America, but only if their relatives were either permanent residents—a green-card holder—or a citizen,” he said. “And I did not meet any of the criteria until my daughter was born. Then I applied again and became eligible.”
Two years and seven months after his wife came to Montana, Collins boarded a plane to Helena. There, in the terminal, he met his 23-month-old daughter for the first time.
“My wife was holding her up in her arms, and as I entered the terminal, my wife put her down and said, ‘There’s Daddy, go to Daddy,’” he said. “She started to walk towards me and I stopped, because I thought she wouldn’t know me, and I didn’t want to startle her. But then she started to run.”
Collins dropped to his knees and opened his arms. His daughter flew into his embrace.
“She hugged me, and I hugged her,” he said. “So, so tightly.”
'I Had to Get Adjusted'
Collins’ first days in Montana were disorienting. He had arrived in February, a frigid month in Helena but a balmy time of year in Liberia. He struggled to adapt to the customs in his new country, including different foods and mealtime rituals.
“In Liberia, lunch is our big meal, but here it’s dinner, and that threw me off completely,” he said. “My first lunch was a sandwich, and after an hour I asked my wife when we were having dinner. She said, ‘You just ate,’ and I said, ‘But I didn’t have any rice.’ In Liberia, we can eat bread all day—that’s not eating. We have to have rice. I had to get adjusted to that, and it was hard.”
Every morning for the first few weeks, Collins would explore Helena on foot. One day, he stumbled upon the capitol building, headed inside, and saw a sign pointing to the governor’s office.
“Something in me just said, ‘Go and visit the governor,’” he said. “So I turned left.”
Then-Gov. Mark Racicot walked into the office as Collins filled out paperwork to request an appointment with him. The two men talked, and Racicot helped Collins, who held two college degrees from Liberia, find a job as a counselor at Intermountain Children’s Home. He worked for several other agencies before landing at the state Department of Health and Human Services, where he specialized in child protection.
During that time Collins also served in the National Guard, the United States Army Reserve and the United States Naval Reserve, a 22-year military career that began with a cold call from a recruiter.
Citizenship wasn’t required to enlist, and Collins was intrigued, thinking the idea sounded like an interesting challenge. Boot camp went well enough, until the weapons training, which included a rifle qualification exam. Holding, aiming and firing a gun immediately brought back memories of his life in a war-torn country.
“When I got on the shooting range, I broke down. I couldn’t do it,” he said. “They called the chaplain and pulled me off the range. We talked, for several days, and finally I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it another shot.’”
He passed the test, but the experience was emotionally difficult. Collins avoided weapons until he needed to requalify, though he is more comfortable with them now, he said.
For much of their first year together in Montana, Collins, his wife and their daughter lived with Muna Collins’ host family, who provided lodging and financial support. They found additional community support from a local Methodist church. After saving some money, the family moved into low-income housing in the city, then eventually bought a house.
At the time, Collins said, they were the only Liberians in the city, and are still among its only Black residents. (As of 2019, Helena’s population of 33,000 was nearly 94% white, and only .5% were Black/African American, according to federal data.) Collins found the community largely welcoming, though there were instances of racism. One morning, several years after he arrived, a neighbor woke him early on a Saturday to ask if he’d been outside yet.
“I put some clothes on and went outside, and on my garage was spray-painted ‘KKK go back to Africa,’” Collins said. “I just told her, ‘OK, I’ll call the police, I’ll take care of this.’”
He went inside to use the phone. When he came back out, he found a group of neighbors washing the words away.
“That told me, right there, that I belong here,” he said. “That said, ‘You are a part of us.’ When I came to America, yes, I did experience racism. But there was always a positive, overwhelming outcome from it.”
'I Threw Myself Out There'
Collins was required to live in the country as a refugee for a year before applying for a green card. Once he received it, his wife was eligible to apply. Five years later, they became citizens.
Politics came after his military retirement in 2017. His son, born two years after he arrived, suggested he enter the Helena mayoral race, saying, “This year is your year.” After so many years in Helena, Collins knew a ton of people in the community, through his full-time job, his work as a substitute teacher, and a host of volunteer positions—coaching kids’ soccer teams, singing in his church choir and serving on boards of various nonprofit organizations, including the United Way of the Lewis & Clark Area and the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance.
“I just threw myself out there,” he said. “It got to the point that when people would see my kids they’d say, ‘You’re Wilmot’s kids,’ and my children would get mad and say, ‘Can you please tell these people that we have names?’”
The family voted on the idea, with Collins’ wife casting the lone dissent. He defeated a four-term incumbent mayor in the general election, garnering 51% of the vote to become the state’s first Black mayor.
All of this, he noted, was possible because of the second chance he found in Helena, after being accepted as a refugee. Others should have that opportunity, he said.
“All you want to do is show someone that help that you were given when you were in need,” he said. “It’s hard to just sit back on the sideline and do absolutely nothing, you can’t do that. You want to share. You want to be able to share what you went through with these people.”
'They Need Help. We Should Help'
For now, a majority of Americans support welcoming Afghan refugees, though recent polls have shown that support is fractured along political lines. However, Republican support has fallen in recent weeks following commentary from right-wing pundits, including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, that frames resettlement as a ploy by Democrats to flood “swing districts with refugees they know will become loyal Democratic party voters.”
Collins views it differently. He believes that withdrawal from Afghanistan was the correct decision, though “we could have done it in a better fashion.” As a city-level official, Collins does not have the authority to offer asylum to refugees, a process that’s controlled by federal immigration laws. But people in Helena want to help, and Collins is trying to help them do it, both by connecting them to rescue organizations within the state and by working with those groups himself.
“I’ve had so many people contact me saying, ‘I have a place, I have an apartment, I have a house,’” he said. “I’m trying to tell them who to contact within the international rescue community, and I’ve been in touch with them myself. I think we’ll have a welcoming event for a group of refugees soon in Missoula.”
People fleeing their country deserve a chance to rebuild their lives safely, he said—particularly those who helped the United States during its 20-year mission in Afghanistan.
“I know that most times, people tend to be afraid of the unknown, and that’s understandable. But refugees that are fleeing war and fleeing their country—they’re not fleeing to cause harm, they’re fleeing because they need help,” he said. “I’m not saying we need to take all the refugees. I’m just saying we should help. I will always support that.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.