By Leslee Kulba- Toward the end of June, the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nonprofit agency, began negotiations with local religious congregations in Western North Carolina to find homes for refugees. Civil unrest in Syria has forced 65 million to flee, and many more are displaced from Communist and fundamentalist Muslim regimes. The moral dilemma, of course, is that hearts go out to people tortured for asserting human rights; but there is fear that jihadists are infiltrating the country, hiding amongst the refugees. Since there are easier ways to come into the country, more realistic fears include the importation of voting blocs with ideologies contrary to democracy and liberty. Economically, in light of the Bowen Report’s validation of the affordable housing crisis everybody knew was here, the welcoming of refugees will come with logistical challenges.
And so, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners, a handful of locals showed up to ask the commissioners to follow other North Carolina counties in passing a resolution rejecting the resettlement of refugees from nations sponsoring terrorism. Jane Bilello said Saudi Arabia won’t even accept them. At the very least, she said citizens should be informed of government’s resettlement plans. Counties passing resolutions cited concerns about security, health, and cost. Other speakers noted the federal government would pay the county $65,370 per refugee per year, and then shift the burden to the county thereafter. By way of comparison, the Area Median Income for 2016 is $32,450 for a single-person household.
The request spurred a spontaneous comment from David Brown, who had come to advocate a different issue. “I really appreciate the sentiment of the people who have expressed concern about refugees coming here and the need for physical safety and protection from diseases and health and that sort of thing, and also concerned about the budget, and how things like that are going to be paid for. I, on the other hand, would just like to speak for a different opinion, which is that I would really like to see the county find ways to embrace people that need a home; in particular, refugees from places that are struggling from wars, many of which the US has had a hand in causing. I heard a concern that vetting was not possible? I just really disagree with that. So, anyway, I’d like to encourage you to have some open arms, and open hearts, and like your consideration of this issue. I know it’s a really nuanced one, but I think it’s important that most of us aren’t from here. We’re native in some sense. My family comes from this area, and we’ve been here for generations and generations, but we definitely didn’t come here by asking permission. And I think we owe it to other people who need a home, just as our ancestors did, to welcome people in, perhaps carefully, but definitely with an open hand.”
The remarks were followed by applause and echoes. Michael Lightweaver said, “I’m really torn about this issue of refugees because part of my ancestors, the Cherokees, had very, very bad immigration laws. The other half were coming here as refugees from England and Ireland and Scotland when we were put out by the Royalists. And so I feel both sides of this. I also understand the issue of terrorism because I grew up in southern Kentucky, and I hear my dad talking about the early 1920s when the terrorist organization that was very active in Southern Kentucky came through trying to recruit members. The organization, of course your familiar with, is the Ku Klux, Klan, spreading terror all over the South. He didn’t join, I was happy to find out. I understand both sides of the question because of my ancestors …”
The big item on the agenda, though, was consideration of support for designating an area of the Craggy Mountain/Big Ivy section of Pisgah National Forest a Wilderness Area. Wilderness Areas are tracts of land that may be used only for scientific research and non-mechanized recreation. Matt McCombs, representing the USFS, said there were no current plans to log the area. If the designation were awarded, there would be neither logging nor clearing of underbrush. The designation would require an act of Congress, so the commission’s vote would only show of support. The room was packed with people with forest green and orange protest T-shirts and stickers; a reported 50-100 more occupied overflow space.
Chair David Gantt and Commissioner Tim Moffitt made it clear they would stay all night to hear every single comment, but twice suggested re-arranging the schedule so citizens interested in other matters and paid staff wouldn’t have to wait. They were voted down both times, even though a straw poll of the audience showed not a single person in the room opposed creating the Wilderness Area. So, protester after protester told the commissioners their stories. One liked the trees, the birds, the rocks, and the rivers. Another liked the rocks, the birds, the rivers, and the trees. Concerns included climate change, Extinction 6X, and anthropocentrism.
Standing out were the artists. Carol Diamond read from Mary Oliver, “When I am among the trees / Especially the willows and the honey locust / Especially the beech, the oaks and the pines / They give off such hints of gladness / I would almost say they save me, and daily / I am so distant from the hope of myself / In which I have goodness, and discernment / And never hurry through the world / But walk slowly, and bow often / Around me the trees stir in their leaves / And call out, ‘Stay awhile’ / The light flows from their branches / And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say / ‘And you too have come / Into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / With light, and to shine.”
Lena Ruark-Eastes of Earth Path Education returned to the refugee theme and sang to the commissioners an old gospel song with a slight twist, “O Earth prepare me / to be a sanctuary / pure and holy / tried and true / And with thanksgiving / I’ll be a living / Sanctuary / for you.” Irene Dillingham Richards, for whose forebears the hamlet was named, showed a picture of herself with a very large tree.
Sean Devereux stood out in his left-brained argument. He said the last time he attended a commissioners’ meeting was eighteen years ago when a landfill was being sited. He lived on Alexander Road, and the commissioners rejected his request not to put it in his proverbial backyard. He now lives on Dillingham Road.