TWIN FALLS • Islamic terrorism, refugee medical bills and how to find a job were all topics of discussion at a forum Tuesday night held by the Times-News.
More than 725 people came to the College of Southern Idaho for the forum on refugees in the community.
It was held in the Fine Arts building, and was organized by the Times-News and intended as a way to share facts about the controversy over the Refugee Center at the College of Southern Idaho. Audience members submitted the questions that were asked by Times-News editor and moderator Matt Christensen.
Larry Bartlett, the director of the Office of Refugee Admissions, who came to Idaho from Washington, D.C., for the forum, did more of the talking than any of the other panelists. His style and sense of humor won loud applause from the refugee center’s supporters at several points but seemed to leave the center’s opponents cold.
A group of people wearing black T-shirts with the logo of the Three Percenters on them left after Bartlett made a crack about wanting to fill up some of the empty seats in the auditorium with more refugees.
“This is propaganda,” another man shouted as he left about halfway through.
Bartlett defended the program in strong terms, casting it as a moral obligation for the United States to help people who have been displaced by war and talking at length about how the vetting process works.
“They’re not terrorists,” he said of the Syrians. “They are people fleeing terrorism.”
Answering another question, Bartlett said he couldn’t guarantee a terrorist wouldn’t enter the country as a refugee but defended what he called a thorough vetting process.
Bartlett also pushed back against the idea that Muslim immigration could lead to Sharia law. Muslims have been coming to Twin Falls for 30 years, he said, and most of them are fleeing from horrible conditions and just want to be safe.
“Refugees are no different from you and me,” he said.
The program has been in Twin Falls since the early 1980s but became controversial this year, after news came out that some Syrians will likely be among the refugees to be resettled here starting Oct. 1.
ZeZe Rwasama, the director of the refugee center and himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spoke at length about the benefits refugees receive and the help the center gives them. Refugees’ rents and utilities are covered for four months, he said, but refugees are expected to get jobs and support themselves quickly. The average refugee is employed after two-and-a-half months, he said.
“They have to find a job early on to help them start paying the rent,” he said.
While the refugee center opponents in the crowd seemed the most unhappy with the tone of the panel earlier on, later in the evening the supporters seemed more bothered, as the questions turned more toward terrorism and Islam.
“Does it matter?” one woman yelled after Christensen asked how many refugees are Christians versus Muslims.
Rwasama replied that they don’t track people’s religions because a person’s religion is irrelevant and people have a right to freedom of religion, drawing his loudest applause of the night.
The panelists were all people who work with refugees in some capacity. Mike Mason, CSI’s Vice President of finance, said no local or state tax money goes toward the refugee center. Wiley Dobbs, the superintendent of the Twin Falls school district, talked about teaching refugee children. Brian Pike, the city’s deputy director of public safety, said refugees don’t cause any particular problems with crime and sang the praises of the several refugees who are Twin Falls police officers.
“They’re some of the most patriotic people I’ve ever met,” Pike said.