Lot of questions, not as many answers, about Tennessee refugees

Photo: WKRN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennessee lawmakers had many questions Wednesday afternoon about refugees who have been resettled in the state by the federal government and the ones that still might come here.

Concern nationwide and in Tennessee grew after a Syrian passport was found on the body of a suspected terrorist after the Paris attacks.

In response, a joint session of both the Senate and House state and local committees was called to hear from the various state agencies responsible for keeping track of refugees in Tennessee.

One of those hoping to send a message to the state lawmakers was Nashville resident Begard Hawez.

“I was rescued from Saddam’s regime,” she told a gathering of reporters before the hearing. “Refugees look like me.”

Now an American citizen, Hawez told her story of fleeing the Kurdish area of northern Iraq before undergoing a screening process that eventually led her to Nashville in 1990s.

She did not speak at the hearing, but felt it was important to say something because what was missing at the refugee hearing was testimony from refugees.

During the hearing, Sen. Ken Yager, who chaired the proceedings, called the Paris attacks a “wake up call” heard worldwide.

The legislative committee lined up several witnesses that included David Shedd, former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who told lawmakers there are weaknesses in the federal vetting system for the refugees, while the state’s assistant commissioner for Safety and Homeland Security said that refugees are the single most vetted group of people entering the United States.

Sen. Kerry Roberts asked Shedd, “What should I tell constituents when they ask if they will be safe at night?”

The national security expert said there is “not a yes or no answer” to the question.

Questions were also raised by Tennessee Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbon who said there has not been much consultation between federal and state governments about refugee resettlment until recently.

“More in the last three weeks (since Paris attacks) than we have had before,” he told the committee.

Later Wednesday, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition released a statement saying the question isn’t whether or not the screening process for refugees is thorough but whether legislators “will continue to exploit the fears of their constituents by casting doubt and suspicion on refugees who themselves are fleeing terror.” Click here to read their statement in full.

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