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What You Need To Know About The Somali Refugee Community In Kansas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's stay in the Midwest and go to Garden City, Kan. That's about 200 miles west of Wichita. The census puts the population at around 26,000 people. Garden City is where the FBI says it has unraveled a plot by three men, members of a Kansas militia group, to attack Muslim immigrants. On Friday, the men were charged with planning to bomb an apartment building that's home to Somali immigrants. We're going to speak now with Dr. John Birky. He is a doctor from Kansas who set up a nonprofit clinic for refugees across the street from that apartment building. Dr. Birky, hi there, thanks for joining us.

JOHN BIRKY: Hi. Thank you, glad to be here.

KELLY: Tell us, how did you come to be involved with the Somali immigrant community in Garden City?

BIRKY: Well, as a physician, I had interacted with some Somali patients. About 18 months ago, I got to know a translator, a Somali translator, and he wanted to get his GED. And so I said, you know, let's hang out and come over to our house, you know, once a week and I'll help you study for GED and he would teach me some Somali words to kind of help out in the clinic. And so we hung out together for about nine months, and then he ended up having to move away. But I realized after the end of that nine months that I had actually made a friend, and that was what I think broke down for me that I think, like many Americans, there's a level of distrust sometimes and even fear of immigrant communities. And that really broke that down for me.

KELLY: How big is the Somali community in Garden City?

BIRKY: I would say the estimate would be around 300 to 500, so it's not that large when you think of a large metropolitan area. However, for a town of 30,000 that's a significant number, you know, I think in terms of perception.

KELLY: To what extent have longtime Garden City residents welcomed this influx of immigrants?

BIRKY: It definitely varies. There are - there are some who are welcoming and have an open mindset. Then there are certainly others who view the community with suspicion and hostility. And I think I would say that even though from the beginning I felt that I've - I would want to say I've had an open mind, I think I would say two years ago I myself had some fear of the Somali community. You know, all what we would hear is al-Shabab and other things and Muslim extremism. And so I would say I was really in that camp of maybe not feeling any hostility but just having a level of fear. And so - and I believe that that still exists in a large portion of the community and even in the region.

KELLY: Sure. And to what extent have they integrated?

BIRKY: Well, that's a great question. I think, you know, I think that is a big issue because I would say a very small percentage have integrated. I was talking to my friend Ahmed (ph) at the meeting today and I asked him at the meeting, I said, you know, how many - I said how many do you think of the Somalia - the several hundred Somalia people here - have been inside an American's home? And he said maybe four or five including me.

KELLY: Wow.

BIRKY: And I said - I said we need to change that, don't we? And he said, yeah, we need to change that. So events like today, I would - I would have been like most Americans. I would have imagined, being a threat like this and expecting it was coming from, you know, Muslim extremists, and then, you know, the last thing we expect is to hear that these are Americans planning violence like this.

KELLY: Yeah. How big a shock has it been to you and to the community more broadly to learn about this plot?

BIRKY: I think it's very shocking to hear that, you know, they were individuals who actually had viable plans to enact violence. You know, Jesus said that the first command is love God and the second command is love your neighbor and he - the story he gave an example was someone who lived nearby that was of a different culture. And, you know, I think that to me the only answer is to show love and to reach out.

KELLY: That's John Birky, a doctor in Kansas who works with the refugee community there. We should mention the three men accused of plotting attacks against that community are due in a Wichita courtroom tomorrow morning. Dr. Birky, thanks so much for talking to us.

BIRKY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.