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Know the West

Colorado, other Western states support Syrian refugee program

Governors choose sides on Obama's Syrian resettlement program.


As he prepares a gyro for a guest at the Shish Kabob Grill across the street from the state capitol building, Obeid Kaifo begins telling the story of family members who have died in the Syrian civil war.

Government forces shot one uncle in the back and burned another to death. A cousin of his father was also killed, presumably in a bombing, and another uncle was seriously wounded when he was shot in the stomach and leg as he was trying to cross the border into Turkey. His grandfather died in a government-run hospital that wasn’t properly equipped to treat an illness.

Kaifo, a 25-year-old college student who manages the restaurant his parents opened after moving from Syria in the 1980s, still has two uncles and their families in Syria. Other members are stuck in Beirut, Lebanon, after fleeing a war that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions since beginning in 2011. He has been unsuccessful in his attempts to bring them to the United States.

The fate of others seeking resettlement in the U.S. is also uncertain. Security fears after the terrorist attacks in France on Nov. 13 have prompted governors, mostly Republican, in a majority of states to oppose the White House’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. This week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted with substantial Democratic support to pause the program and make the screening process much more strenuous.

But governors in several states, including Colorado, where Kaifo grew up, and others in the West such as Montana, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and California, have said they would welcome or are not opposing refugees, a largely symbolic gesture given that immigration policy is a federal matter. The issue for the states has mostly split on party lines, but notably Utah, which has a Republican governor, has also said it will accept refugees.

Obeid Kaifo talks to customers at his family’s restaurant, Shish Kabob Grill. He has been unsuccessful at helping his other family members come to the United States.
Joe Amon/The Denver Post

In Colorado, where Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters each take around a third of votes, Governor John Hickenlooper’s statement this week that “we can protect our security and provide a place where the world’s most vulnerable can rebuild their lives,” was somewhat politically courageous given vocal opposition, says Seth Masket, chair of the political science department at the University of Denver.

Jonathan Lockwood, executive director of the free-market advocacy group Advancing Colorado thinks Hickenlooper jumped the gun.

“He rushed out in a very political way to support the president’s plan that he knew nothing about,” says Lockwood. Lockwood wants to see increased screening measures before even talking about letting Syrian refugees into the country.

So far, Colorado has only taken in a trickle of Syrian refugees, but more are expected. The state has resettled five this year, bringing the total of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants originally resettled elsewhere to around 20 since 1999, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s refugee services program.

The state, which typically receives 2 percent of the nation’s refugee intake, is expecting the number will “rise somewhat” from the 2015 figure, says department spokesman Lee Rasizer. But it won’t know the exact number of future arrivals or when they will come until around a month in advance. “We don't anticipate that it will be a large number,” he says.

The refugees who will soon be arriving have been in camps since 2011 and 2012 and have gone through multiple screenings by the United Nations and the U.S. Department of State, he says.

At the Shish Kabob, Kaifo, wearing a black apron and collared chefs shirt with a pen in a sleeve pocket, shows a visitor messages of support on his phone. He says he also gets hate mail. Still, he believes most Coloradoans want to accept refugees, saying people have been watching the crisis unfold from Europe on TV and now want to do something to help.

Outside the restaurant, where some trees still cling to their ochre-hued leaves, longtime patron Ellen Forney, a 58-year-old legal assistant who lives in Denver, says she isn’t worried about a refugee-related terror attack because the vetting process is already lengthy.

The political mix in the state may have allowed Hickenlooper some leeway in taking his stance, she says. “Maybe Colorado has become a little less redneck,” she says.

Abdulsalam “Salam” Hindawi, a 29-year-old graduate student at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus who is from Syria, is one who was happy with Hickenlooper’s statement.

“I’m glad because I know what my people are going through right now,” he says.

Through social media, he is in contact with his parents in Aleppo. His mother recently told him of mortar shells falling in their neighborhood. One killed a teacher.

They not only have to contend with shelling, but also the general insecurity that comes in a war zone. Without a functioning local police, any armed group could break into their house.

“I get worried often,” Hindawi says.

Matt Whittaker is a Colorado-based journalist specializing in natural resources coverage whose work has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal and other international publications.