Idaho City of Immigrants Debates Taking in Middle Eastern Refugees

For the last three decades, this small, politically conservative Western city has mostly welcomed refugees from around the world displaced by war, oppression and terror. A nonprofit refugee center, operated by the College of Southern Idaho with federal funds and charitable donations, brought in waves of often desperate and grateful families as trouble spots around the world flared and ebbed.

They came from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union’s implosion, Bosnia as ethnic cleansing wracked the Balkans, and Africa to escape genocide and civil war.

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But Idahoans say that those refugees, different as they were in culture and language, also shared something powerful with the sturdy agricultural families that have anchored this corner of the West since the first Mormon pioneers in the 1800s: They were on America’s side, residents here said, having fought against Communism, or as allies of American troops, or in places friendly to the United States.

Liyah Babayan, who owns a clothing store, said anti-refugee talk came from a small minority.

In an echo of the ferocious debate that is gripping Europe about the fate of the millions of Syrians thrown from their country by civil war, Twin Falls is grappling with the question of whether taking in a next generation of refugees from the Middle East is wise and safe.

The announcement last month by the Obama administration that thousands of additional Syrians would be accepted into the system nationally galvanized opponents of the CSI Refugee Center here, as it is formally known, who were already circulating a ballot initiative aimed at forcing the College of Southern Idaho to cut its ties or shut down the program.

“There’s a lot of concern about radical Islam,” said Richard L. Martin Jr., a petition-drive leader who graduated from high school here in the mid-1980s. Back then, Mr. Martin said, Twin Falls was still taking in refugees from places like Laos, including a boy who became one of his best friends. “Now it’s something different,” said Mr. Martin, the owner of a small medical products repair company.

On Sept. 22, in a measure of how intensely the subject has aroused the community, about 700 people filed into an auditorium at the college for a forum with local school and public safety officials and a representative from the State Department.

Some of the questions asked of the panelists were easy to answer, like whether refugees ever struggled to get jobs in Twin Falls, which has a population of 46,000 and a countywide unemployment rate of 3.7 percent. The answer was an emphatic no.

“They get jobs really fast,” said Zeze Rwasama, the director of the refugee center and a former refugee himself, from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Other questions were more pointed.

“Can you offer guarantees that we’ll be safe?” asked the panel moderator, Matt Christensen, the editor of The Times-News, a local newspaper, who posed questions submitted by audience members.

The answer, from Lawrence Bartlett, the director of refugee admissions at the State Department, was that life did not come with guarantees, but that background checks and security tests were strong, and under review to make them stronger.


“Nothing is 100 percent,” Mr. Bartlett said.

The refugee debate in Twin Falls is also complicated by the question of trust in government — or perhaps more aptly here, a lack of trust.

Don Hall, the mayor of Twin Falls, a former police officer who now teaches in the law enforcement program at the College of Southern Idaho, said he believed that refugees had a positive influence locally. But many conservatives here and around the nation, he added, simply do not believe the federal government is acting in their interest, whether in health care legislation or in the reassurances that all will be well with Syrian refugee resettlement.

Vicky Davis, right, before a community forum, said she wanted to close the refugee center. Credit Kim Raff for The New York Times
“We’re all feeling a little disenfranchised,” he said. “Washington is not listening to us.”

Religion is not far below the surface, either.

This summer, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, Shahram Hadian, preached about the dangers of Islamic extremism in several local churches, including a Baptist church where Mr. Martin, the petition drive organizer, is a member and trustee. Mr. Hadian, who has written and spoken widely against Islamic extremism, returned to the area late last month for several more appearances.

Jennifer Thornquest is among those who have responded from the other side, arguing that Twin Falls should follow the teachings of Jesus and practice what she calls “radical hospitality.” Ms. Thornquest, who works as a D.J. for weddings and other events, maintained a 24-hour prayer vigil earlier this week on a highway bridge over the Snake River on the edge of town, sometimes holding signs about welcoming refugees, other times praying, she said. People came to stand with her.

“All these things added up in my mind, and I had to do something,” she said.

At the community meeting, support for refugees and the refugee program was also evident when a man stood up near the end of the two-hour program and told members of the panel that one question had not been put on the table: “What can we do to help the refugees?” he asked, to loud applause from many in the audience.

Supporters of the refugee program said they believed that the economy in Twin Falls had been bolstered by the work ethic and determination of refugees like Akembe B. Bilombele, a 38-year-old native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who arrived here in August with his family of five after seven years in a refugee camp in Malawi.

“Whatever work I can do, I’m ready,” Mr. Bilombele, a former schoolteacher who speaks four languages, said in an interview at the refugee center.

And some local employers have been enthusiastic in their support as well. Earlier this year, a big Irish-owned cheese company, Glanbia Foods, which has 700 employees in southern Idaho — many of them are former refugees, including the plant manager in Twin Falls — gave the nonprofit refugee center its biggest cash donation, $25,000.

“We’ve had success with them,” said a Glanbia spokeswoman, Peggy Watland, referring to the refugees. “They’re hard workers, they show up, they support their families, and they’re good participants in society.”

One former refugee, Liyah Babayan, who arrived here 20 years ago as an 11-year-old from Azerbaijan and now owns her own women’s clothing store on Main Street, said she believed that the anti-refugee talk was driven by a small minority. She said she measured acceptance in business terms — local people shop in her store, she said, even though they do not have to.

“Cash doesn’t lie,” she said. But Alex Joye, who owns a chain of gun and pawn shops in the Boise area, came here to speak against the refugee center, saying that past waves like the one that brought Ms. Babayan were not good predictors of the future.“Europe is having a lot of trouble integrating Muslims,” he said. “We can expect the same trouble here.”