When Don Stull first heard the news that the FBI had foiled a domestic terrorism plot aimed at Somalis in Garden City, Kansas, he thought: oh no.
“It was so unlike the Garden City that I know,” he says.
Stull, a retired University of Kansas anthropology professor, has been studying Garden City for 30 years. On Friday, the FBI announced that it had arrested three men for planning to blow up truck bombs around an apartment where the city’s Somalis live, promising a “bloodbath” in a building that also contains a mosque.
“Garden City is, I believe, a welcoming community that has done it’s very best to accommodate what has been a series of immigrants coming over, people coming to work in the beef packing plants,” he says.
That’s true – I’ve written about this unlikely progressive town in far western Kansas for Harvest Public Media and NPR. Many other meatpacking towns did not respond to their new citizens the way Garden City did – an example being Noel, Mo., also chronicled by Harvest Public Media.
Dating back to the 1980s, when the Vietnamese started arriving in Garden City, town leaders made a decision to welcome these newcomers with a well-connected social services network, responding with food, housing, health care and schools.
The town’s history was recounted for me by Levita Rohlman, director of the Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services, who has been in Garden City since the 1970s. As the first south Asians migrated there, the local ministerial alliance made a decision:
“The vision was: we have these people here,” Rohlman told me when I visited Garden City in the summer of 2013. “Are we going to accept them as a blessing or are we going to consider them a curse?”
They chose blessing. And they built such a good infrastructure, one that included city leaders and the police, that Stull offered it as a model to other towns in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kentucky facing the immigrant influxes brought on by the big food factories.
People in Garden City are proud of their diversity and like being known as a cultural crossroads, Stull says. He points to the city’s logo, a yucca plant with leaves the many colors of the rainbow. The motto: “the world grows here.”
Although some of the first immigrants to Garden City were Buddhists, the majority have been Catholic or Christian, Stull says. The new refugees from Somali are different for several reasons, he says, and may have influenced the way some people have responded to them.
“With Somalis you’ve seen an issue of religion and also race and also the whole issue of terror and terrorism that is the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001,” Stull says. “Those kinds of dynamics are newer or something that we didn’t encounter in the ‘80s.”
Stull takes comfort in knowing that the three suspects aren’t from Garden City – they are from nearby Liberal and another Kansas town, Wright. Still, the news is also a reminder that even a city that welcomes people from around the world must not become complacent.
“This plot does show that communities and the people within those communities must constantly be vigilant about the need to recognize the challenges that diversity brings, to serve the needs of those newcomers,” he says.
Peggy Lowe is investigations editor at KCUR and Harvest Public Media. You can find her on Twitter at @peggyllowe.