The Idaho City at the Center of the Refugee Controversy
A refugee center in Twin Falls has endured many months of anti-immigrant hostility -- and emerged stronger as a result.
Liyah Babayan was 6 years old when she and her family fled their home country. As Armenians living in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, they feared they would be killed when dormant rivalries between Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians flared up during the final days of the Soviet Union.
They escaped to Armenia, but Armenia was in no shape to handle them. An earthquake had leveled a large portion of the country, knocking out basic services and much of the government. Now homeless, Babayan’s family moved into a school utility closet and lived there for several years. They had escaped death in Azerbaijan, but they were seen as intruders among their fellow Armenians. As refugees, they were outcasts.
Eventually, Babayan’s family found a home in the United States. After a stopover in New York, they landed in Twin Falls, Idaho. There, amid the cows and canyons of the high desert, Babayan learned English and perfected an American accent. She graduated from high school in Twin Falls before setting off to Oregon for college, and the Netherlands for a job. But she wanted to be near her parents, so she returned to Twin Falls. Babayan opened the Ooh La La! consignment dress shop on Main Avenue, had two children and joined the local school board. The school board position was especially fitting, she says, because the Twin Falls schools were the first place in her life she ever felt safe.
But the city has changed in the last two years, and Babayan has been singled out for being a refugee once again. She says that when she was growing up, refugees were generally ignored, if they were noticed at all. Now they are suddenly center stage in this town of 45,000 people. Outside groups and media outlets have used anti-Muslim rhetoric to fuel a backlash over refugees in the area. They’ve targeted the Twin Falls Refugee Center, as well as refugees like Babayan. She has felt the anger toward refugees, even though she is a Christian who has been in Idaho for 25 years. A landlord harassed her. Her car was keyed. Customers walked out of her store. A neighboring business owner blasted anti-immigrant speeches through their thin shared wall until police arrived and shut off her speakers.
Liyah Babayan and her family came to Twin Falls in the early 1990s after fleeing persecution in Azerbaijan. She now operates a consignment dress shop on Main Avenue and serves on the local school board.
City officials have struggled to respond. They have found themselves blamed for events beyond their control, branded as liars and on a few occasions had their lives threatened. Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar worries that the hostility has “hijacked” the city’s agenda, but he admits that it took a while for community leaders to develop an appropriate response. On the way there, though, they got help from allies outside government, including the local newspaper, religious followers and even a group of Boy Scouts.
The Refugee Center at the College of Southern Idaho opened in Twin Falls in 1980 and until recently had never attracted controversy, even though it has settled Muslim refugees from Bosnia and other countries for at least two decades. It has long since outgrown the small blue house downtown that it occupied when Babayan came there as a child. The center is now located in a small industrial building, which gives it space to host English classes, store donations and park vans that transport its clients to doctor appointments and jobs.
The center, which is federally funded, has helped about 300 refugees settle in the Twin Falls area every year. Those refugees have quietly left an impact on the city. There’s the downtown bar called Bumpin’ Bernie’s, owned by Albanian refugees Afrim and Fatushe Hetemi, where the menu includes cheeseburgers and nachos alongside sandwiches with beef cevapi -- a skinless sausage -- served on bread that Fatushe bakes herself. Newly arrived refugees, like 27-year-old Mohammad Mustafa, a former translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, work at the Chobani yogurt plant. Refugees also work with other immigrants in the area’s dairies, which depend heavily on them to staff their facilities.
The goal of the refugee center is to make its clients self-sufficient, and to do it fast. Most refugees have only eight months of assistance from the center to learn English, find a home, get a job, learn to drive or figure out another way to get around town, and, if they need it, to get medical and mental health treatment.
The recent trouble for the center started in April 2015, when the local newspaper, the Times-News, reported that the center expected an “influx” of Syrian refugees, even though it had not settled any Syrians previously (and two years later, still hasn’t). The projections came as the numbers of international refugees reached levels not seen since World War II. The head of the Twin Falls refugee center, Zeze Rwasama, said at the time that the center would be prepared for Syrians, because it already resettled Iraqis, who came from the same region in the Middle East.
But several Idaho state lawmakers seemed increasingly wary of Muslims entering the country. A conservative bloc in the legislature temporarily tied up a bill to adopt international standards for collecting child support because of concerns it would impose Muslim Shariah law. More than a dozen legislators also attended a presentation in Boise by Shahram Hadian on “The True Face of Islam in Idaho.” Hadian is a Washington state pastor who converted from Islam and now says it and Christianity are at war with each other. Meanwhile, refugees of all stripes started receiving more scrutiny, after thousands of children from Central America fled to the United States the year before.
A Congolese woman speaks through an interpreter to a refugee caseworker.
So the prospect of Syrian refugees coming to Twin Falls instantly put the small city on the front lines of much larger battles over refugees, Islam and conservative principles. The first center of attention was the community college’s board meetings. No one from the public offered any comments when the trustees discussed the refugee program in April 2015, but by that summer dozens of people wanted to weigh in on it.
First, a group of immigration opponents demanded that the college close the refugee center. They worried about refugees taking their jobs, not assimilating into American culture, posing security risks or spreading Islam. “This program is giving the college a bad rap. Let someone else take it over,” activist Rick Martin, a former organizer for Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns and a gadfly in local politics, told the trustees. (Martin, along with several other leaders of the anti-refugee efforts, did not respond to several interview requests for this story.)
Meanwhile, supporters of the refugee center also started coming to the meetings to defend the program. By July 2015, when 50 people came to its meeting, the board capped the public comment period at half an hour.
The board never seriously considered shutting down the refugee center. Nevertheless, Twin Falls got an introduction to life in the national spotlight. Conservative commentators weighed in from afar. Ann Corcoran, a Maryland-based author of the website Refugee Resettlement Watch, smelled a conspiracy. “I thought Twin Falls was just one more small city with do-gooders driving the resettlement of refugees,” she wrote. “Now I don’t think so. Someone is driving the resettlement in Twin Falls. Or is it a plan being driven by the [Obama] White House to colonize rural Idaho with ‘diversity.’ (Or both?) Note that new mosques are popping up!”
Hadian came to Twin Falls twice in three months to speak out against the refugee center, at the invitation of Martin. Three Percent of Idaho, a militia group that touts the slogan “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty,” led a march in Twin Falls and, a month later, a rally on the steps of the Idaho Capitol in Boise, calling for the refugee center to be closed down.
The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 stirred the debate further over Syrian refugees in Twin Falls and nationally, because one of the perpetrators carried a fake Syrian passport. Republican governors, in particular, either tried to shut down refugee resettlement programs in their states or encouraged the federal government to do so. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter urged President Obama to allow the state to opt out of the federal refugee resettlement program.
In Twin Falls, Martin tried to shut down the center with a local ballot measure. By law, Idaho ballot measures must be reviewed by the county’s prosecuting attorney for legal defects. Grant Loebs, the Republican prosecutor in Twin Falls, told Martin’s group that the ballot measure was vulnerable to legal challenges because it asked the county to make decisions it had no power to make. The fate of the refugee center in Twin Falls, he said, was up to the federal, not the local, government.
Martin’s group pushed ahead with a similar ballot measure anyway. They waved signs along the road outside of grocery stores to get residents to sign their petitions, which were due by April 5, 2016. Despite all of the attention to the refugee center the previous year, organizers were able to collect only 894 of the 3,842 signatures required to qualify for the ballot. Local officials had wondered how much support the anti-refugee movement had in the community. Now they had something of an answer. The issue seemed to be finally put to rest.
But things were about to get much, much worse.
Albanian refugees Afrim and Fatushe Hetemi (against the wall) have operated Bumpin' Bernie's in downtown for a decade. Their menu includes standard American fare and Eastern European specialties.
On June 2, 2016, three boys -- ages 7, 10 and 14 -- took part in the sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl in the Fawnbrook Apartment complex on the north side of Twin Falls. Two of the boys came from Sudan; the other, from Iraq. Loebs, the county prosecutor, says his office handles eight to 10 similar cases every year. But because the crimes involved foreigners who were thought to be refugees, news of the assault instantly lit up conservative websites and spread to national and a few international media outlets.
The first reports falsely claimed that two of the assailants were Syrian and that they used a knife to carry out the attack. These reports described the assault in graphic detail, although Loebs says many of the details were wrong. The accounts were quickly picked up by websites such as InfoWars and World Net Daily. The Drudge Report ran an account under the headline: “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.”
Locally, only one TV station initially ran a story, and it offered few details. The online attention was enough, though, to bring a half-dozen people to the next city council meeting demanding more information. City council members hadn’t heard of the incident, which only irritated the anti-refugee speakers even more. “It’s a little disappointing to hear you guys don’t follow the news. Is that on purpose?” asked activist Julie Ruf. “Because that’s what I’m hearing.”
By the next council meeting, two weeks later, other media outlets had jumped on the story, and local officials began offering more details. “There were no Syrians involved, there was no knife involved, there was no gang-rape,” Loebs, the county prosecutor, told the Times-News. He stressed, however, that he could not divulge many details because the suspects were juveniles, and Idaho law severely restricts the information that can be shared about juvenile cases.
Conservative commentators chafed at the lack of information provided by city and county officials. “Pro-mass immigration advocates may not like the sources of some of the original reporting that forced the case into the sunlight, but the watchdogs got more right than wrong,” wrote columnist Michelle Malkin, in a piece that Donald Trump Jr. promoted on Twitter. “These critics now have Twin Falls’ political leaders sputtering to cover their backsides and police brass defending themselves against explosive charges that they dragged their feet.”
Pamela Geller, the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, told Sean Hannity on his radio show that mistaking the nationalities of the boys in the attack was “like saying we got their sock color wrong.” The important thing, she said, was that they were from “jihad nations.” Geller said the sexual assault would be a “game-changer” for how the country regarded Muslims. “Idaho,” she said, “should be the clarion call of every suburban mom out there.”
As the drumbeat of stories, commentaries and accusations from conservative media continued, city council meetings in Twin Falls were dominated for months by refugee-related debates. Barigar, the mayor, says city officials tried to “fight fear with facts,” but those efforts were complicated by stories that accused city officials of trying to cover up damaging information. As he points out, it’s hard to win over someone who starts the conversation thinking you’re a liar. “I’m not convinced we will ever change the mind of those who came to our council meetings,” he says, “because the agenda was not ensuring justice for this little girl. Their agenda was: We don’t like Muslims, we don’t like refugees, we don’t like outsiders, we shouldn’t let anybody in town. That became very clear from them.”
The case put Twin Falls under the microscope again. The Washington Post, The New York Times, BuzzFeed and Slate dispatched reporters to the town. Breitbart sent its lead investigative reporter at the time, Lee Stranahan, to the city for a month to report on the Fawnbrook case and dig for dirt on the refugee program. Stranahan went beyond writing stories. He berated a city council member during the public comment portion of a meeting. Then he helped launch a group to promote populism and “localism” rather than “globalism” in Twin Falls. The group, called “Make Your Hometown Great Again,” also pushed for more aggressive policing, curbs on immigration and developing alternative media to replace local newspapers and TV stations as sources of information.
The Times-News dutifully covered the announcement about Stranahan’s new group, but it became increasingly clear that the local paper and the conservative provocateurs viewed each other with disdain. When the refugee center first became a flashpoint, the newspaper organized a community forum with representatives from the U.S. State Department, the college, the refugee center, the city police, the school district and the local hospital to address residents’ concerns. More than 700 people came to the event, although some groups left during the presentations because they felt the forum was too one-sided in favor of the refugees.
Until the Fawnbrook incident, Times-News editor Matt Christensen says, the newspaper’s opinion page was the only community institution pushing back against the idea that the refugee center was dangerous. “That was really frustrating for us, because it really felt like we were standing alone in the community,” he says. “We thought the city’s responsibility isn’t just to provide clean drinking water and patch potholes. The government does have some responsibility for defining the ethos of the community, and we felt the government at the time was not doing enough to combat that narrative. As a result, in that vacuum, it was all being filled with the untruths and the outlandish conspiracy theories.”
When it came to the paper’s news coverage, Christensen says, reporters and editors started wondering whether they were fanning the flames of the controversy by covering all the latest angles. They decided to forge ahead and focus on informing readers who were “open to truth and facts,” not the small percentage of residents they thought would be against refugees no matter what. “You heard the mayor and the city manager talk about our community’s narrative being hijacked by the alt-right,” Christensen says. “There was a sense in the newsroom that we were kind of at war with those other publications. Personally, just as a journalist, I was like: This is bull. This is not the truth and we’re the paper. Let’s put the truth out there.”
Newspaper employees received death threats via email and anonymous phone calls. One activist tried harassing workers in the newsroom before he was escorted off the property. After a warning from city officials of a threat, the newspaper shut its front office for a day. It instituted a buddy system for leaving the paper at night. After Fawnbrook, Christensen received so many threats that he hesitated to answer any call that didn’t have the local 208 area code. One caller threatened to rape and kill Christensen’s two daughters, who were about the same age as the victim in the case. “I’m much more concerned about the white Christian militiaman who’s lived in Idaho his whole life than I am about the refugee family who just got here last week,” he says.
It wasn’t just the newspaper getting threatened. People at local TV and radio stations, the city police, the county prosecutor’s office, and people in city hall all received threats, says Loebs, who has worked with the FBI to track the origins of the hostility. Callers threatened to set off bombs, kidnap children or shoot people. But the threats had one thing in common: “I would say, without exception, it [came] from outside this area,” he says. They came from Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey and even Canada. “It’s all because it’s printed in these know-nothing websites.”
In April, Bill Colley, a local Fox radio talk show host who had long been sympathetic to the anti-refugee activists, publicly denounced them after receiving a death threat. Colley said hard-liners wanted not only to stop new refugees from coming to Idaho, but also to deport refugees who had already settled in the area, even if they had become U.S. citizens. That and the death threats, he said, went too far for a conservative like himself. “How much of this lunacy are we going to allow to continue and besmirch the rest of us?” he asks. “We have legitimate concerns. But we aren’t fascist killers."
High school sophomore Kaleb Gourley led his Eagle Scout service project at the refugee center and later shared his experiences with the Twin Falls City Council.
The raging debate has had a significant impact on the refugee center: It triggered a huge surge in donations and volunteers. A year later, donated clothes, kitchen utensils and decorations are everywhere, filling storage rooms, lining hallways, lying on classroom tables and even stuck on the floor of the director’s office. Dozens of donated bicycles sit locked up outside. “We have never seen in 30 years so many volunteers coming,” says Rwasama, the center’s director. “We don’t have things for all of them to do.” Before the controversies started, he says, the center had trouble getting enough help to carry out its programs. “The opposition to the refugee program,” he adds, “created an opportunity that is golden for refugees.”
One of the main sources of support in Twin Falls has been religious groups, particularly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Mormons make up about a quarter of the population in the area, and, as refugees became an increasingly contested topic in the 2016 presidential campaign, their church urged members to work on behalf of refugees.
Kaleb Gourley, a high school sophomore, came to the refugee center in search of an Eagle Scout service project. Gourley remembered a lecture he’d heard at his church the year before. “Less than 200 years ago, Mormons were refugees ourselves,” he says. “We were driven state to state by persecution.” Gourley found out that the refugee center needed a car for driver education. He worked with a local auto dealer to get a red 2007 Pontiac Grand Am donated to the center.
One of the adult leaders of the Scout troop, Mark Crandall, a cardiologist, did some research and came up with the idea of asking the city council to pass a resolution declaring Twin Falls to be a “welcoming city.” It was modeled after resolutions that two Idaho communities, Boise and Ketchum, had passed earlier in the year, and was intended more as a statement than a change in policy. Passing it would signal that, despite two years of controversy, Twin Falls still welcomed its refugees. “It would show our mayor and our city council are in favor of the refugee center,” Crandall says. “The refugees will know they are wanted.”
The effort came at an opportune time. Just a few days before the city council met and discussed the resolution, prosecutors reached plea agreements with the three youths involved in the Fawnbrook assault. The media frenzy had died down. The Breitbart reporter who had camped out in Twin Falls left the organization to start a talk show for a Russian news outlet. Martin, the activist who wanted the refugee center closed, had been quiet after losing a bid to unseat one of the college’s trustees the previous November.
Crandall showed up at an April city council meeting along with a dozen uniformed Boy Scouts, including Gourley. Two dozen supporters spoke in favor of the resolution. Only four people opposed it. The city council instructed its staff to draft a formal resolution to proclaim Twin Falls a welcoming city. The vote was unanimous.
Meanwhile, Babayan was back at Ooh La La! selling prom dresses to high school students and preparing for wedding season. She says the initiative from the Boy Scouts encouraged her. “When my parents and I moved here,” she says, “there was no one speaking out on our behalf like that.” Babayan has made changes since the controversy started, too. She now uses business cards that identify her as a refugee. She has also launched a “MakePeace” product line of fragrant soaps and other beauty items made with Idaho potatoes. For every product she sells, she promises to send a bar of soap to someone in a refugee camp.
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