billings, montana, once again redefines community

Today on Morning Edition Jennifer Ludden told the story of Billings, Montana, resident Rob Hunter, who while “[d]riving to work one dark morning in February . . . caught an NPR story about an Iraqi refugee struggling to find work in Florida. The young man, identified as Bahjat, had endured death threats and a car bombing because of his work with U.S. contractors. He was an IT specialist with a degree in civil engineering, yet the only job he’d been offered was cleaning hotel rooms for $7 an hour, not enough to support his mother and sister. ” While on vacation in Florida, Hunter found Bahjat and long-story-short, offered him a job, helped him move his family from Florida to Montana, and

Hunter’s friends donated enough furniture, bedding and dishware to completely furnish the two-bedroom apartment Bahjat found. His mother and sister arrived to a “real home,” he says, and his sister found a job in a restaurant after just a week.

When the local paper ran an article about his family, people mailed them Wal-Mart and Costco gift cards, and two dentists donated their services.

The tone of Ludden’s piece is one of surprise, as if such generous acts that make us reconsider the meaning of community are a rarity. And, perhaps, they are. But the story immediately reminded of Frédéric Brenner’s 1994 photograph Citizens Protesting Anti-Semitic Acts Billings, Montana:

The story behind the photo:

On December 2, 1993, someone in Billings, Montana, tossed a brick through the window of a Jewish home. On December 11, the Billings Gazette wrote: “Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment.” A year later, photographer Frédéric Brenner staged this photograph of residents of Billings–from all walks of life, ethnicities, and religions–holding menorahs to mark the city’s singular response to an act of religious intolerance.

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