A Kansas town, known for welcoming immigrants, fights anti-refugee politics and anti-Muslim sentiment.
GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Born in Kenya to Somali refugees, Ifrah Ahmed found a new home amid the cattle ranches, beef slaughterhouses and pancake-flat fields of western Kansas.
Here in Garden City, Ahmed, 29, has made a community for herself with fellow African and Asian refugees and longtime locals who make up an unusual fabric that they believe represents the best of America: open, inclusive and understanding.
“It’s the people that make home. It’s not the area, not the environment,” says Ahmed. “It’s the people. It’s your neighbors.”
In Garden City, population 27,000, residents speak 40 languages, including Burmese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Swahili and Creole. About 23 percent of the population is foreign born, according to the U.S. Census. White, non-Hispanic residents account for 40 percent of the population. On main street, Vietnamese noodle soup is prepared by Hispanic chefs, and hookah stores sit next to taco joints and drive-up hamburger stands.
It’s also the place where in 2016 three men who called themselves the Crusaders launched a plot to blow up an apartment complex housing a mosque and dozens of Muslim refugees.
The FBI ultimately swooped in to prevent the attack, and since then Garden City residents have rallied against hate. They’ve hosted steak dinners, taken an interest in new cultures and taught their children to learn from each other. At a time when hate crimes are up across the U.S. for the third consecutive year, with shootings at places of worship and people of color expressing fear over rising white nationalism, Garden City’s residents say they are proud of their tolerant, inclusive community.
Garden City was always a place for anyone who wanted to work hard.
It got its start as a waypoint on the Santa Fe Trail used by Mexican merchants to access eastern U.S. markets, and later by westbound settlers headed to California. Cowboys, Native Americans and residents of the former Mexican territories of southern Colorado and New Mexico mingled freely in Garden City, giving it a diverse population from the start.
In those days, Texans drove their animals north to the ends of the railroads in southwest Kansas, where they could be shipped — alive — to eastern slaughterhouses to feed a growing nation. Refrigerated trucks have largely replaced the trains, and now the outskirts of Garden City are the final stop for a steady stream of cattle pouring into holding pens.
The community’s makeup today is driven primarily by the work at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant, where thousands of cows a day get turned into hamburger, steak and other beef products. Running six days a week, the plant demands a massive workforce to power its two shifts as cows are killed, skinned and sawn into smaller pieces.
It’s hard, dangerous, dirty work that can pay about $15 an hour in a town where a four-bedroom house can be bought for $125,000. Early mornings and evenings see a stream of headlights flooding into and out of the plant, which employs about 3,200 people.
For generations, Hispanic immigrants worked the plant, but the past two decades have seen an influx of new faces from Asia and Africa.
Mohamed Abdulhadir lost two brothers to the al-Shabab extremist group linked to al-Qaida during the decades-long civil war in Somalia. He fled first to Kenya and then arrived in Minnesota under the federal resettlement program.
His wife and kids remain in Africa, and he hopes one day they will join him in Kansas. While he waits, he works as a translator for the Tyson plant, coordinating between managers and workers in the six languages he speaks — Arabic, Italian, Swahili, Somalian, Spanish and English.
“They welcomed us, they treated us well, and showed us what we need,” says Abdulhadir, 71, of the United States. “I believe it’s a good place to live. It’s a place of opportunity to work and earn money.”
Ahmed, who fled Kenya, helps lead food safety efforts at Tysons as a food scientist. She was born in Nairobi to Somali refugees, and spent time in the Nakivale refugee camp in southern Uganda before coming to the United States. She went to college in Kansas City and later got a job in Garden City.
This fall, she voted in her first election as a U.S. citizen, a pathway that seemed unobtainable all those years ago in Africa. She said refugees want to come to the United States because it is full of decent people — a country of laws and fair chances.
“Are there bad people? Yes, in any place, there are closed-minded people,” Ahmed says. “But I think the bigger picture is that there are a lot of people who are willing to accept and to change.
“Every refugee is trying to find somewhere that they belong. I like to say that Kansas picked me, that there’s a reason that God wanted me in Kansas,” she says.
The new residents added different threads to the Garden City’s fabric, from Vietnamese-language Catholic church services to a small mosque in an apartment complex where Muslims prayed.
“To experience that firsthand was quite a revelation,” says the Rev. Warren Stecklein, of Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church, who moved to Garden City about a year ago. Stecklein said his church proudly hosts mass in English, Vietnamese and Burmese.
For decades, Kansas welcomed international refugees under a U.S. State Department policy that resettled them in new homes after extensive screening. Most of the refugees from that program were fleeing violence in their home countries, from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Vietnam and the Congo. Refugees were required to work and were given a path toward citizenship.
In 2015, then-Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order barring the use of state money to assist Syrian refugees. He then formally withdrew Kansas from the federal refugee resettlement program that brought many Somalis to Kansas, arguing that some refugees might actually be members of the Islamic State group infiltrating the country. The decisions came amid a string of terror attacks across Europe conducted by members of ISIS, including the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
Fighting for the presidential nomination at the time, Trump said a plan by President Barack Obama to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees that year in the wake of widespread violence in their homeland was “insane.” Several other GOP presidential candidates took similar stances, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Dozens of states banned refugees.
“It seems to me the craziest thing we could do is take people who live in a desert who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter,” Huckabee said.
In 2017, the Trump administration capped the number of refugees eligible for admission into the United States at 45,000 — the lowest cap level in decades — and then told nonprofit resettlement agencies to close their smaller offices, including the one in Garden City.
For months, a small group of men from other Kansas cities had been watching the international debate over Muslim refugees. They focused on the increasing number of refugees living and working in Garden City. Gavin Wright, Curtis Allen and Patrick Stein eventually settled on blowing up a small apartment complex that was both home to a mosque and Muslim refugees.
In June 2016, the FBI recorded Stein’s plotting. He called the refugees, “f—ing g—–n cockroaches” and “mother—-ers.”
“I’ll blow every g—— building up right there…boom…I’m outta there,” he said.
After a secret investigation following a tipoff from another plotter, FBI and local police arrested the three men in October 2016 over their plan to detonate four massive car bombs at the corners of the Garden Spot Apartments on West Mary Street. The men planned to trigger the bombs the day after the 2016 presidential election.
Mursal Naleye, 28, director of the East African Community Center, was preparing for evening prayers on the day of the arrest when police chief Michael Utz called, asking him to assemble a group of community leaders for a briefing. Standing in the Garden Spot parking lot, police laid out the plot: how the three men had begun stockpiling explosives and ammunition, how they’d driven these streets and mapped out their attack.
“I wasn’t expecting something like this in the U.S.,” says Naleye of the bomb plot.
Abdulfeta Ahmed, 21, had arrived in Garden City about three months prior to the aborted attack. Like many of the immigrants to Garden City, Ahmed came because he had family living in the area.
“It was frustrating to hear something big like that,” says Ahmed, whose family is originally from Ethiopia, of the proposed terror attack, “especially when you just landed in free nation where you have all the right to do what you want and that kind of thing happens, I felt not only afraid, but unsafe, as well.”
Since relocating, Ahmed started taking attending Garden City Community College. He is trying to get used to the blizzards that sweep across the Kansas plains. He is happy to call Garden City home, even after the bomb plot.
“To be honest, the people are so nice and more than welcoming,” he says. “I like the people, the city and pretty much everything… I mean, all the places you go for service I see smiley faces and that’s all.”
Longtime Garden City residents sought to make clear that the “Crusaders” were outsiders who didn’t represent the community’s values.
“It was a shock that people from outside wanted to come here and do harm,” said former Garden City Mayor Roy Cessna, 50. “The community has a long history of celebrating different cultures – it’s who we are.”
In Garden City, children enrolling in schools get help with vaccinations and practicing the Pledge of Allegiance through the district’s “Newcomers” program. School administrators have learned to place students by ability, not age or expected grade level, and organize parent-student visits to the schools before new students start classes. The failed attack prompted the district to temporarily add more security to schools.
“After that, we went on with school as normal,” Cessna said. “Our community rallied around and supported the people who were being targeted.”
Support for the refugees and immigrants has come from all quarters, not just government agencies and churches.
Born and raised in California’s Bay Area, hospital administrator Ben Anderson married a small-town Kansan who wanted to return to her roots. They settled on the Garden City area in 2013 because of its diversity. But Anderson said he found the African immigrant community surprisingly disconnected from rest of Garden City. Many immigrants worked their shifts at the Tyson’s plant, shopped at the African Store, and worshiped in mosques rarely visited by anyone else.
Anderson, 39, started buying tea, dates and olive oil at the African Store, slowly establishing a relationship with the staff and other customers. A mutual agreement that neighbors ought to know each other better led to a 300-person steak dinner at a junior high school in April 2016, the same month Brownback announced he was withdrawing the state from the federal refugee resettlement program.
At the dinner, white guys like Anderson showed up in Somali clothing, as a sign of respect, only to find Somali men wearing Western-style suits to show their own respect.
“It was electric, it was wonderful. That built some trust,” Anderson says. “Beef is the universal language of love in western Kansas.”
That event led to more intimate gatherings. Anderson said the first conversations he had, via interpreters, were far more basic than he’d ever imagined: How do we get driver’s licenses, the refugees asked? Where can we learn English when we’re working double shifts all week? How does one open a restaurant?
“What I learned is that having a stranger in your home for a meal, or at all, is a simple act of bravery. And it’s so necessary,” Anderson says.
A federal judge last week sentenced the three “Crusaders” after a jury convicted them in April. Allen received 25 years, Wright got 26 and Stein received 30 years.
“The defendants in this case acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill innocent people on the basis of their religion and national origin. That’s not just illegal—it’s morally repugnant,” Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in a statement.
Ahead of the sentencing, attorneys for the three suspects argued Trump’s pre-election rhetoric had egged them on. As a candidate, Trump called for a “complete and total” shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.
“The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” said defense attorney Jim Pratt in a sentencing memo filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas.
Hate crimes are up across the country since Trump ran for the White House, and civil rights groups say it’s no coincidence. The total number of hate crimes in the 10 largest cities in America jumped in 2017, marking four straight years for an uptick in such incidents, according to The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.
In October, a Florida man was charged after he allegedly sent pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others critics of the president. That same month, a Pennsylvania man killed 11 people in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In January, a Republican congressman defended his racist views in an interview with The New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Rep. Steve King of Iowa said.
Trump’s language has given extremists “permission” to begin airing their more virulently hateful views, said Eric Ward, executive director of the Oregon-based civil-rights group Western States Center.
“Once you start to dehumanize individuals, violence becomes permissible,” Ward said. “That’s what’s so frightening about the rhetoric. And if that rhetoric was being used in Rwanda, we’d know it for exactly what it is: steps toward genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
Utz, the Garden City police chief, said law enforcement must strike a careful balance between freedom of speech and threatening language. Like many officials in Garden City, Utz declined to discuss the politics behind the president’s words. Trump captured more than 60 percent of the vote in Finney County in the 2016 election.
“We can’t arrest somebody for shooting their mouth off,” Utz said.
Naleye, however, worries about the next person “inspired” by Trump’s language. He said all Muslim refugees living in the United States are thankful for the refuge provided by Americans, and are confident that this is a far better country than the ones they left behind. Still, he wishes Trump would be a little more careful about what he says.
“The president has the right to speak, to say anything he wants. But you’ve got watch what you say,” Naleye said. “He could inspire a lot of people who hate Muslims. What’s going to happen next?”
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