In A City With Strong Ties To Syria, Refugee Crisis Stirs Debate Syrians have been putting down roots in Allentown, Pa., for a century. The city's mayor is happy to have Syrian refugees fleeing the current conflict join his community — but not all residents agree.

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now back to the Syrian refugee crisis, which has become a major national debate. Now we'll going to get a perspective from Allentown, Pa., the home to the largest per capita Syrian population in this country. Syrians began settling there over a hundred years ago, first to work as peddlers and later in factories. Today, Allentown is also a destination for refugees who are fleeing the ongoing violence in Syria. Laura Benshoff from member station WHYY went to ask out Allentown's residents whether they would welcome anymore.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: The first stop for many Syrians arriving in Allentown is a neighborhood of flat-fronted row homes called the 6th Ward. That's where Radwan Jarrouj landed in 1962.

RADWAN JARROUJ: There's a big restaurant at the corner there. That's a Syrian restaurant. And that there's a little grocery market there that's also Syrian.

BENSHOFF: Jarrouj's trajectory - following family to Allentown before moving out to the suburbs - is typical of the older Syrian community. He's also active in local Syrian groups and lobbied for Allentown to accept the refugees. Still, he says he remembers September 11 and empathizes with politicians who've grown anxious over accepting more.

JARROUJ: But I still would say proceed with caution.

BENSHOFF: Most of the old families are from the Christian minority and support leader Bashar al-Assad, while some of the people arriving now have fled violence under his regime. One recent refugee who asked not to be named because he fears for relatives' safety in Syria said he fled his home town of Homs for Damascus in 2012.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) In Homs, there were peaceful protests and demonstrations, and the regime wasn't liking that.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) 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.

BENSHOFF: He doesn't understand why politicians in the United States are afraid of refugees fleeing terror. The vetting process for refugees takes an average of two years and investigates both applicants' stories and cross checks whether any physical evidence ties them to terror. But after the Paris attacks, some local politicians, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, say it needs to get even tougher.

PAT TOOMEY: We have to re-examine the security protocols we use for admitting Syrian refugees, and until we have done that, we should suspend the program. There is no reliable way of vetting those who come from these chaotic terrorist havens.

BENSHOFF: 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 waits under the Christmas lights outside the Lehigh Valley Mall for his wife and young son to finish shopping. He says he doesn't know much about the background checks, but he doesn't see any upside to accepting Syrian refugees.

TODD LONG: If we would find out tomorrow that, you know, a thousand Syrian refugees were 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?

BENSHOFF: Since 2012, Allentown has resettled 138 Syrian refugees. While there's been a national push to halt the trickle of arrivals, Allentown's Mayor Ed Pawlowski and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf both say they trust the vetting process and will welcome more refugees. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Allentown.

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