Syrian refugees not in mid-Missouri; some want to keep it that way

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COLUMBIA - Although a handful of governors around the country are making it clear to the Obama administration they would not like Syrian refugees to come to their states after the attacks in Paris, Gov. Jay Nixon released a statement that did not clearly indicate a position as to whether he would block Syrian refugees from settling in Missouri.

Nixon released the following statement to KOMU 8 News:

“The safety of Missourians is my highest priority, and the terrorists who were involved in planning and perpetrating the attacks in Paris must be caught and brought to justice,” Nixon said. “The screening process for refugees is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and I call on our federal partners to implement the strongest possible safeguards to protect our state and nation.”

On Tuesday, Missouri Speaker of the House Todd Richardson sent a letter to Nixon on behalf of a group of Missouri state representatives, urging him to suspend the acceptance of Syrian refugees wanting to relocate in Missouri.

"As I’m sure you are aware, a bipartisan group of 27 governors have opted not to participate in the resettlement efforts and have asked the Department of State to suspend resettlement efforts in those states until adequate security measures can be put in place," Richardson said in the letter. "I am asking you to immediately join those efforts."

Richardson's letter also stated that after the Paris attacks "and with the continued threat of similar attacks here in the United States, I urge you to take swift action to ensure the safety and well-being of all Missouri citizens."

A group of Missouri senators sent a similar letter to Nixon on Monday; that group voiced concern for the safety of Missouri residents if Syrian refugees are allowed in.

Although Nixon does not take a definitive stance regarding Syrian refugees, the Office Manager of Columbia Refugee and Immigration Services Center, Senad Music, said it does not have a single Syrian refugee in mid-Missouri as of Tuesday. 

Music said of the 38 counties the organization serves, there are no verified Syrian refugees living in them. He said the organization is talking to officials in Columbia as to whether they can resettle 50 more immigrants in the community.

"We are verifying with the schools that it will not be hard on their budget or with the health department or with the food stamps," Music said.  

The U.S. started resettling about 85,000 refugees on Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal government's fiscal year. The Obama administration wants 10,000 Syrian refugees to come to the United States.

In a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said while some U.S. citizens might be concerned about terrorist acts if Syrian refugees are allowed in the U.S., most of the refugees are victims, not attackers.

"The vast majority of these refugees are victims of the very same violence that we saw in Paris and, frankly, have been living and dealing with a level of violence, a level of brutality, of suffering and sacrifice that’s incomprehensible to us, and they are seeking refuge," Toner said.

As for refugees in mid-Missouri, in the cases the organization handled in the 2015 fiscal year, Music said 29 came from Eritrea, 28 came from the Congo, 25 from Iraq, 18 from Myanmar, 17 from Somalia, and nine from Afghanistan. If Missouri begins to accommodate more refugees, he expects that number will gradually increase the next few years.

Music said he thinks refugees better the community.

"People will pay their taxes," Music said. "Their kids will finish school. They will start businesses, and they will help this community."

Music said Columbia may see Syrian refugees in a year or maybe in five years, but he said "as of this moment and maybe the next three or four months, I don't have any signs of that."