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A place of refuge

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The uproar over refugees – as reflected in the Middle East, across Europe, and in the speeches of the Pope as he traveled across the United States – has reached a new level in its emotion and sweep.

But refugees are not new. Not even in Idaho.

And the prospect of taking in refugees wasn’t really controversial, not for a very long time, and refugees (most notably Afghan refugees, but others too) often got notable support from conservatives.

The Idaho state Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program was launched in the mid-70s when refugees fled Southeast Asia, fleeing the then-ascendant Communist regimes in the area as the Vietnam conflict wound down. Eastern European refugees, from stressed counties in that region, became more prominent in the refugee stream in the 80s.

In the 90s, the refugee office noted, “Idaho resettled over 5,000 refugees, more than half of which were from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Civil war, ethnic cleansing and unchecked violence forced millions of Bosnians to flee their homeland, and the subsequent impossibility of return for many led to a major resettlement effort by the U.S. The other half of the refugees arriving in the 1990s originated from other European countries, Africa, East Asia, the Near East, Central Asia and the Caribbean.” That pace continued into the 2000s. In 2012, the office said, “686 refugees and special immigrants arrived in Idaho from 20 different countries.”

None of this occasioned any great controversy.

In Idaho most refugees’ services, and so many of the refugees themselves, have been based in Boise. Twin Falls, through the College of Southern Idaho refugee center, has been the secondary hub, and by far the hottest debate in Idaho has been centered there.

Last week more than 700 people packed a community forum at Twin Falls about the local refugee program; it even drew Larry Bartlett, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office on Refugee Admissions. Much of the discussion was supportive, but some of it was not. About halfway through a speaker joked that there were a few empty seats in the room “we’d like to fill with refugees.” The Twin Falls Times News reported that then “a group of people wearing black T-shirts with the logo of the Three Percenters on them left,” and one man shouted out, “This is propaganda.”

In Twin Falls right now, there is no hotter topic.

Why now?

Some of it may have been sparked by news that Syrians may be among the refugees coming to the Magic Valley. But so what? People from around the globe have come to the area for years.

One speaker said, “A word we’ve heard over and over again this summer is ‘sharia.’ And I think a lot of people are worried about refugees bringing values to this community that don’t jibe with traditional southern Idaho values. . . . Why should Twin Falls take in people that might not necessarily share the values that are traditionally here and have been practiced here for years and years?”

That same question could have been asked in the 70s, when Idaho took in refugees from far away. Or in the 80s, or 90s. But, in the main, it was not. Idahoans were far more confident in themselves then. Why are so many so frightened now?

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