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In A City With Strong Ties To Syria, Refugee Crisis Stirs Debate

A Syrian refugee, who requested anonymity to protect her family living in Syria, opens her Quran on Wednesday at the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley in a suburb of Allentown, Pa. Dozens of Syrian refugee families are being resettled in the Allentown area, in part because the city is already home to one of the nation's largest population of Syrians, who began settling here in the late 1800s.
A Syrian refugee, who requested anonymity to protect her family living in Syria, opens her Quran on Wednesday at the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley in a suburb of Allentown, Pa. Dozens of Syrian refugee families are being resettled in the Allentown area, in part because the city is already home to one of the nation's largest population of Syrians, who began settling here in the late 1800s.

Syrian immigrants have been making their home in Allentown, Pa., for more than a century. They began settling there in the late 1800s, first to work as peddlers and later to work in factories.

Today the town is home to one of the largest Syrian populations in the U.S. It's also a destination for newer arrivals — refugees fleeing the ongoing crisis in Syria. But Allentown residents don't agree on whether the town should welcome more of them.

'Proceed With Caution'

The first stop for many Syrians arriving in Allentown is a neighborhood of flat-fronted row homes called the 6th Ward, which is home to Syrian restaurants and grocery stores.

Most of the old Syrian families in Allentown are from the Christian minority and support Syrian President Bashar Assad, while some of the people arriving now have fled the violence under his regime.

That's where Radwan Jarrouj landed in 1962. Jarrouj's trajectory — following family to Allentown before moving out to the suburbs — is typical of the older Syrian community. He's active in local Syrian groups, and he lobbied for Allentown to accept the refugees.

Still, he says he remembers Sept. 11 and empathizes with politicians who have grown anxious over welcoming more refugees.

"Proceed with caution," Jarrouj suggests.

Most of the old Syrian families in Allentown are from the Christian minority and support Syrian President Bashar Assad, while some of the people arriving now have fled the violence under his regime.

One recent refugee, who asked not to be named because he fears for relatives' safety in Syria, says he fled his hometown of Homs for Damascus in 2012.

"In Homs, there were peaceful protests and demonstrations ... and the regime wasn't liking that," he says.

He says he participated in some of the early protests. Before long, Damascus also became unsafe.

"Anybody from Homs would be arrested or their houses would be raided if they found out they were from Homs. Even if there was no reason."

He doesn't understand why politicians in the U.S. are afraid of refugees fleeing terror.

An Emphasis On Screening

The vetting process for refugees takes an average of two years and involves investigating applicants' stories and cross-checking whether any physical evidence ties them to terrorist groups.

But after the Paris attacks, some local politicians, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, say it needs to get even tougher.

"We have to reexamine the security protocols we use to admit Syrian refugees. And until we've done that, we have to suspend the program," he says. "There is no way of reliably vetting people that come from these chaotic terrorist havens."

Toomey says he doesn't have any concrete suggestions for how to fix the process, one which remains murky to a lot of people.

Todd Long, another Pennsylvanian, says he doesn't know much about the background checks, but he's doesn't see any upside to accepting Syrian refugees.

"If we were to find out tomorrow that 1,000 people are coming into the Lehigh Valley next week, people are going to think, 'Well, what if one of them was an ISIS terrorist who got through the cracks?' " he says.

Since 2012, Allentown has resettled 138 Syrian refugees. And while there has been a national push to slow the pace of arrivals, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf both say they trust the vetting process and will welcome more refugees.

Copyright 2020 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.