A Syrian family that was set to be resettled in Indiana has been diverted to Connecticut. The change in the family’s destination came after Indiana Governor Mike Pence asked for a stop to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state.
Governors from more than two dozen states have made similar statements, opposing resettlement in their states. And on Thursday, the US House of Representatives voted, by a veto-proof margin, to bar Syrian refugee resettlement until the government can make certain stringent certifications that refugees aren't terrorists. The measure must still be considered by the Senate, where its prospects seem more mixed. Their objections come after last week’s deadly attacks in Paris.
Carleen Miller, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, the organization that handled the family’s case says that they decided to send the family to Connecticut after the issue became so politicized.
“It was the first Syrian case to come to the US after the governor had started making these statements and we weren’t sure what would happen to this family,” she says.
Miller adds that there was already a lot of media interest and her agency felt that the family’s transition to the US would be much smoother if they were sent to Connecticut.
“We were concerned that this family needed to get the services they needed and not be caught up as a political football in this situation,” she explains.
The couple fled war-torn Syria with their young child in 2011. They registered with the United Nations and were granted refugee status. They started their application to be resettled in the US in 2012. It took three years for them to go through the screening and vetting process.
Finally, a few weeks ago Miller’s agency received information about their case and accepted their application.
Miller says she is “really disheartened” by what has happened.
“This is very painful for us in the resettlement community,” she says.
Miller argues that refugees are the most screened people that arrive in the US, much more than tourists, for example.
She feels like the governors have reacted in a knee-jerk fashion.
“I think that he [Pence] is operating on misinformation,” she says, adding that he is not aware of the “very thorough process that we have in place in the resettlement program for all refugees coming into the country.”
The case of Iraqi refugees Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi doesn’t help.
Alwan and Hammadi were resettled in Bowling Green, Kentucky, back in 2009. In 2011 they were arrested in the US for supporting extremism.
“They basically plotted to send weapons and cash to al-Qaeda in Iraq to support the insurgency there,” says journalist Lisa Autry with WKU public radio in Kentucky, who reported the story at the time.
The weapons included sniper rifles and stinger missles. But the money and the arms never made it to Iraq. The scheme was foiled by an FBI informant.
“[Hammadi and Alwan] had both been involved in insurgent attacks in Iraq before coming to Bowling Green in 2009 as refugees. Alwan’s fingerprints were found on an IED in Iraq back in 2005, which helped seal the case.”
In the wake of the Kentucky case, the US halted the refugee process for six months, Autry adds, and the local process of vetting refugees was re-evaluated she says. But this case shook up the small community of Bowling Green. It’s a community that has welcomed many different refugees from Bosnia, Burma and Somalia.
“It was hard to believe that anyone like that could be among us. It’s very much a small, very much Mayberry-type community.”
Following the Paris Attacks, members of the refugee community in Bowling Green have shared with Autry their own fears of the hurt that followed the discovery of Hammadi Alwan.
“They hate what the Paris terrorist attacks have done as far as creating that national/international discussion about bringing in refugees — who have the best intentions, have the intentions of seeking just a safe haven and starting a new life for them and their families,” she says.
Bowling Green will become home to about 400 new refugees this year — 100 of whom will be resettled from Iraq. None currently are set to come from Syria.
Back in Indianapolis, residents have reacted to this by flooding Miller’s agency with email and phone calls to show their support for Syrian refugees. Some have offered lodging for them.
Miller says she is talking with the federal government to find out whether the state can legally stop the services that they give to refugee families. Legal experts have suggested that state officials can't stop refugee resettlement, but they can certainly make it more difficult. Once that is resolved, she says she hopes to continue resettling families as usual.
The Syrian family who was hoping to go to Indiana is now in Connecticut. Miller says they have been received warmly by both Connecticut and Indiana.
“Indiana people have sent an Edible Arrangement for them,” she says. “They are sending their thoughts to that family.”