Bowling Green will begin resettling 40 Syrian refugees after Oct. 1, following a joint decision from the Bowling Green International Center of Kentucky and community partners it works with to help resettle refugees.
The decision was made during a meeting Tuesday at the Bowling Green International Center of Kentucky, where the community’s altruism collided with fears about the refugee screening process. Questions mostly came from City Commissioner Melinda Hill, who also is running for state representative. Hill sent an email to media before the meeting outlining those fears and urging the decline of Syrian refugees.
Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the International Center of Kentucky, said that despite those fears or suspicions, it will take an “appeal to the better angels that’s in us.”
“When I took over in 2013, it was my objective that this organization would make sure that the community is fully involved in whatever we do,” he said. “I just want us to really ask ourselves some tough questions.”
Syrian refugees are a segment of the larger group of 440 people slated to be resettled. Larger groups include 150 people from Africa, 165 from east Asia and 100 from the near east and south Asia along with 20 Cubans. Mbanfu said in most cases, 60 percent of those resettled are school age, from elementary to high school.
Community partners who help the Bowling Green International Center of Kentucky resettle refugees had representatives in the room. They included officials from Warren County Public Schools, Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, Community Action and the Barren River District Health Department, along with other organizations.
Representatives of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, also attended. State Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, attended in person.
Syrians also attended the meeting to share their experiences accommodating to life in America along with dangerous and tragic situations back home. Among them was Huda Melky, who recently retired as Western Kentucky University’s Title IX coordinator and equal opportunity director.
Melky said she hopes Syrians resettling in Bowling Green will be able to change minds.
“They’re gonna show the positive, they’re gonna be the hardworking people, the educated,” she said. “They’re gonna show the community what you heard within the media it’s not really true.”
Although most attending the meeting seemed to support resettling Syrians, others had misgivings they wanted addressed.
Hill attended the meeting to voice what she said were the community’s concerns about the vetting process for Syrian refugees.
“I think our citizens are afraid,” she said during the meeting. “I’m requesting that we put it off one more year, if any way possible, to allow our citizens to feel comfortable and hopefully the federal government will have a program put in place that allows all of our citizens to feel secure.”
Hill further explained her position in that emailed statement.
Hill cited an online Daily News reader poll in which 64.8 percent of participants opposed resettling Syrians. She also explained her concerns with the background checks for Syrian refugees that “rely extensively on questioning the would-be refugees themselves.”
Mbanfu responded to Hill’s statement and those who worry about vetting.
“I understand their concern. I understand their fears,” Mbanfu said. “But I believe that their fears emanate from the fact that they do not understand or know about the screening process.”
That’s understandable, Mbanfu said, because until recently very little was said about the process out of security concerns.
“If I know how you go about it, then I can possibly know how to counteract that,” he said.
He also rejected the notion that the process relies too much on what refugees are willing to say about themselves.
“That is not true,” he said. “The screening process does not rely only on what the refugees say.”
During the meeting, Mbanfu shared folders containing background information on Syrians and refugees in general. One document explains a 14-step vetting process that involves collecting biographic and biometric information, such as an iris scan for Syrians, and checks it against various security databases.
“Syrian refugees referred to the United States for resettlement are flagged for additional security screening,” the document said.
Later steps include fingerprint checks, medical screenings, matching refugees with a resettlement agency and cultural orientation before admission to the United States.
When refugees initially enter the U.S. they apply for food stamps and Medicaid, Mbanfu said, but “all of those things are cut off when they go to work and they are making income above the poverty level.”
“The longest time a refugee has come into Bowling Green and has not gotten a job is three months,” Mbanfu said, adding refugees often have a good work ethic.
Melky said a commitment to hard work has been critical to her success. She came to the U.S. in 1976 with an international law degree.
After starting in a clerical position in WKU’s student financial office, she managed to build a successful life for herself. But her family members back home in Syria still face dangers. In Damascus, the country’s capital, children sleep on the streets and face starvation.
She’s also lost several family members to ISIS, which she said is in the city. She worries about the terrorist group’s recent seizure of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus.
“They killed about over 150 people, and that is about five miles out of Damascus,” she said, tearing up as she worried for her family. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen to them.”
“We are human,” she said. “I beg you to help the Syrian refugees.”
— Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @aaron_muddbgdn or visit bgdailynews.com.