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Syrian Native: Kentucky Has Nothing to Fear in Resettling Refugees

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Bowling Green is preparing to welcome Syrian refugees later this year who are fleeing their country’s civil war.  The Warren County-based Kentucky International Center has agreed to resettle 40 Syrians, but the decision is raising concerns in the local community.

Someone trying to allay those fears is Bashar Mourad of Owensboro.  The physician, who is Muslim, immigrated to Chicago in 1989 on a student exchange visa.  He later on worked in Houston before settling in rural western Kentucky.

"I was actually concerned when I first moved," Mourad recalls.  "I didn’t know how I would be received, but people were so nice to us.”

Mourad did what thousands of fellow Syrians are trying to do now, although under different circumstances.  Syrians today are fleeing their war-torn country in search of a better life.  Some are hoping to find one in Bowling Green, a city that already is home to a large immigrant population. The plan to open the city’s doors to Syrian refugees is creating backlash in what has otherwise been a welcoming environment.  City Commissioner and Mayor Pro-Tem Melinda Hill has been one of the most outspoken critics of the plan to resettle Syrians in Bowling Green.  She says she doesn’t have confidence in the federal government’s screening process.

"Our country has systems in place where our criminals, we know what they did, when they did it," Hill tells WKU Public Radio.  "Many of these people are from countries that do not have systems like that in place, or if they did have them, these people have not been entered into the system, they’ve not been kept up to date, or those systems have been destroyed.  We don’t have access to any background checks.  It’s all questions and answers.”

Hill fears too much of the process relies on self-reporting and would like the resettlement to be delayed.

Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the Kentucky International Center in Bowling Green, argues the vetting process is extensive and can take years to complete.

"We have 14 different stages of security checks and clearances that have to be done before the refugees come into the United States," Mbanfu explains.

Some locals residents are more apprehensive since the 2011 arrest of two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green.  Both are now in prison for conspiring to send weapons and cash to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. 

Mbanfu points out that a small group of Syrians is already living in Bowling Green.

"Some of them have been in Bowling Green for more than 40 years," he adds.  "If somebody doesn’t identify himself to you as a Syrian, you’ll never know that individual, on the road, in a shopping mall, in a school, you’ll never know.”

Mbanfu says 60 percent of refugees are school age, and he's only expecting about 15 Syrian adults to resettle in Bowling Green, but Commissioner Hill believes the city should err on the side of caution.

"It doesn't matter the number because the system isn't in place to verify these people are safe and that we will be secure in our own community.  We have no idea what they will do or could do," states Hill.  "Everything has changed since nine-eleven, and I think all of us are more aware and more cautious.”

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Credit Owensboro Health Systems
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Dr. Bashar Mourad of Owensboro is a native of Syria.

  Dr. BasharMourad of Owensboro, who still has family in Syria, believes terrorism fears are unfounded.

"I lived in Syria for 27 years.  We never had anything like ISIS or any of those crazy people who are coming from all over the world," remarks Mourad.  "The Syrian refugees who are fleeing the country are fleeing from dire conditions.  What’s going on in Syria is really a genocide, and those people are just trying to find a safe place, raise their kids, and find a decent chance at prosperity.”

The Syrians represent a small fraction of the 400 other refugees coming to Bowling Green this year, including from Africa, Asia, and Cuba.  If approved by the federal government, 40 Syrians will start a new life that they hope won’t be derailed by fears of terrorism.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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