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Uighur detainees' prospective neighbors wary in Bermuda and Palau

A few residents in Bermuda (taking 4 detainees) and Palau (awaiting word) expect the settling-in period to be a bit bumpy.

June 12, 2009|Kate Linthicum

At Chopsticks, a restaurant one block from the beach on the island of Bermuda, waitress Kelly Simmons said diners were talking about one thing on Thursday.

Uighurs.

And, Simmons said, the customers were not happy. "They're saying, 'The government doesn't help us, but they're helping these strangers.' "

Simmons, 20, said she wished Bermuda residents had been given a say in their government's decision to accept four Chinese Muslim detainees from the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Local radio and television reported news of the former prisoners' arrival Thursday morning.

"They gave us no warning, no heads up," Simmons said. "It just happened."

Despite her dissatisfaction with how the matter was handled, Simmons said she thought the Uighurs eventually would settle nicely in Bermuda, population 67,000. "We're a very mixed cultural community," she said. "We're accepting."

About a mile inland, at Sparky's Cycle Repair, Alvin "Mac" Macintosh agreed.

"Bermuda is like New York City," he said. "We have all sorts of people here."

Macintosh, 40, said he didn't see why a handful of Chinese Muslims shouldn't join the mix. "They weren't convicted of anything," he said. "Actually, I'd like to meet them. I'd like to talk to them about Guantanamo Bay."

While Macintosh fixed bikes, he was keeping one eye glued to the TV talk shows, he said, and had concluded that the attention directed at the Uighurs had been unfair.

"To me, it don't make a [bit of] difference," he said. "We are all from planet Earth."

Don Burgess, an editor at the Bermuda Sun, said reaction across the island had been mostly negative. "People are suspicious of the arrangement," he said. "They're asking, 'If the U.S. didn't want them, why should we take them? How much is the U.S. paying the government to accept these prisoners?' "

Meanwhile, nearly 10,000 miles away, people in the multi-island nation of Palau were waiting to find out whether another group of Uighurs from Guantanamo would be heading their way.

Beverly Skilang, who runs a guesthouse on the island of Koror, said she had heard rumors about the resettlement program, but she didn't quite believe them. After all, how could Palau, a place Skilang said was "suspicious of outsiders," possibly integrate Chinese Muslims who once were accused of being terrorists?

"People are scared, and they don't understand," Skilang said Wednesday. "I don't think Palau will accept them."

Skilang, however, said she would welcome the Uighurs to Palau, home to about 20,000 people. As a Christian, she said, she believes "everyone deserves a second chance."

"I believe that people can change," she said. "But not all the Palauans believe that."

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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