Strasburg residents debate refugee issue

STRASBURG – Tempers flared at a forum Monday as residents debated whether the town should accept Syrian refugees.

Town Councilman Scott E. Terndrup led a forum that began by giving residents tips on how to seek public office or to participate in local government in other ways. The audience, including several council members, then gathered in groups based on their generation and discussed the idea of Strasburg accepting refugees. The topic was of a hypothetical nature and Strasburg is not accepting refugees nor has the town been told it should expect to receive any.

The topic sparked a long debate though many of the people who spoke voiced concern about the potential for refugees to commit violent acts.

At one point Town Councilman Seth Newman claimed that “racism” has compelled some people in America to oppose refugees. Newman pointed out that many of the perpetrators of terrorist-style attacks in the country, such as Timothy McVeigh, were white American males.

“So the fact that this fear-mongering and this racism about these people in need – we’re talking about children; we’re talking about mothers; we’re talking about grandparents – children in need, needing to come to the country to escape whatever,” Newman said. “This country was based on helping those kinds of people and I think we’re forgetting our roots and we’re letting the fear get the better of us.”

Town resident Kim Bishop criticized Newman for his comments.

“I am tired of being called a racist,” Bishop said. “I am not a racist. I do not see race in the Syrian issue. I do not see race in any issue to be quite honest.

“I am not afraid like you (referring to another person in the audience) – untrusting perhaps – but not afraid,” Bishop added. “I think one of the biggest reasons there is dislike and distrust and discord in our country, in our town is because you made a generalization, whether you know it or not and called everyone who doesn’t want Syrians racists and that is disrespectful and it’s wrong and you need to learn to use your words in a constructive and polite way ’cause you don’t. Whether you know it or not, you insult people and you’re mean.”

Terndrup interrupted Bishop to remind her and the audience to talk about the issue and not individuals. Bishop then said that the problem with political discourse is that people who might take one stand or another are called “racist” or “Republican” or “left-winger.”

Another man in the audience agreed with Bishop, noting that the country needs to be “under guard” and that the issue isn’t race.

Strasburg should accept refugees primarily because they might stand a better chance in a small town than in a larger city, one woman said earlier in the discussion. But one man noted that fear of the “person who sneaks in under the radar” exists. He added that fear led the country to treat other ethnic groups – Chinese, Irish, Japanese – in a similar fashion in the past. Most people are concerned with the vetting process and an apparent lack of background information on many of the refugees, he added.

Terndrup asked how fear played into the groups’ discussions. Terndrup noted that, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the country has made sacrifices in the name of safety.

Refugees from another country might find it hard to assimilate in Strasburg given that many residents in the newer, outermost neighborhoods don’t mix with the rest of the town, Bishop said, citing comments made by Councilman Donald Le Vine.

“We can’t assimilate ourselves,” Bishop said. “How are we going to assimilate a group of people … that may not want to become part of the town?”

“So, while there is a fear factor, nobody can deny that you don’t want that one to be at your grandchild’s school or your kid’s school when they decide to blow themselves up,” Bishop added.

Some people said the town would need to remain cautious if it accepted refugees. Other people said the town and the country need to take care of its own people – poor, homeless, veterans – before it can handle refugees.

At least one person said the issue comes down not to fear but to trust and an apparent lack thereof in each other.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com