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Bowling Green Residents Voice Concerns Over Syrian Refugees in Testy Town Hall

Lisa Autry

A standing-room-only crowd packed into the Bowling Green Schools’ Professional Learning and Development Center on Friday night for a town hall on the proposed resettlement of Syrian refugees.  Heated exchanges between opposing sides last two hours. 

Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the International Center of Kentucky, explained the extensive screening process that takes 18-24 months before refugees are approved for resettlement in the U.S.  

Mbanfu introduced Major General Allen Youngman, a Bowling Green resident and former Adjutant General of Kentucky.  Youngman tried to put to rest fears of terrorism by explaining that the government’s current vetting process did not exist on September 11, 2001, the date of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.  The screening process, he said, has become much more stringent in the past decade.

“I would not have been able to tell you ten years ago that I had a lot of confidence in the system.  We have things in place today that we didn’t have just a few years ago,” Youngman remarked.  “I feel pretty good about it.  Is it foolproof?  No.”

Youngman said anyone wanting to harm the U.S. would likely not go through the refugee resettlement program, but instead through a student or tourist visa.Despite learning of the many layers of vetting, many in the audience were still not satisfied.  Among them was Janice Bedo.

“My concern is that the vetting starts as the United States looks into their background,” Bedo stated.  “There’s no record of them in their homeland because the infrastructure is gone.  It’s broken, and we can’t trust who these people say they are because there’s no way to double check that.”

Others in the crowd wanted to know what kind of system is in place to monitor the refugees once they are in Bowling Green and what would be the cost since the refugees would be placed on government assistance until they have jobs.

Credit Lisa Autry
Former Kentucky Adjutant General Allen Youngman addressed the town hall and explained the government's vetting process of refugees.

A soft-spoken young woman wearing a hijab walked to the front of the room to share her resettlement story.   Rukia Mohamud from Somalia has been in Bowling Green for three years.  In that time, she has earned an associate’s degree and plans to begin the nursing program at WKU in the fall.

“If you welcome refugees and show them love and hospitality, they will integrate easily.  People have always asked me about my covering.  I like that because it’s good to ask questions rather than assuming and judging that person.”

Mohamud, who is Muslin, said she has always felt welcome in the community.

Mbanfu said the audience members raised valid concerns, and with more education, he thinks the community will feel more comfortable welcoming the Syrian natives.

“One good thing to take away from this town hall was that at the end of it, many who had doubts, walked up to me and thanked me for clarifying things.”

Banfu said he plans to hold another town hall in the coming months.  He should know by August if the federal government has approved his application to accept 40 Syrians who would begin arriving in Bowling Green in October.

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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