Vermont city prepares for Syrian refugees with welcome, wariness
RUTLAND, Vt. — Marble quarries known the world over once attracted immigrants to this small city tucked beside the Green Mountains. Now, a simple quest for peace and safety is beckoning a new group.
Mayor Christopher Louras has unveiled a plan, developed in near-secrecy, to resettle 100 Syrian refugees who fled the onslaught of the Islamic State and are exiled in sprawling Jordanian camps.
If approved by the State Department and others, the resettlement would begin in October and gradually send Rutland more Syrian refugees than are currently living anywhere else in New England.
The influx would be a jolt of instant cultural diversity for Rutland, where there are no mosques and no other Syrian immigrants. Most residents appear ready to welcome the refugees, mindful of the harrowing images of Syrians desperately seeking refuge outside their ravaged country.
“They have nowhere to live,” said Jerry Dubeau, a 59-year-old who supports the move. “That’s what this country is all about. We’re all from somewhere else.”
But mingled with good wishes has been a touch of fear, and simmering anger that the decision was made behind closed doors.
“Their culture is different than ours. Their world is just different than ours,” said Chris Kiefer-Cioffi, a selectwoman in a neighboring town who worked for 27 years on the Rutland police force.
Some residents have asked whether the refugees would be inoculated, others have wondered whether a terrorist could infiltrate the group, and still more have questioned what the dollars-and-cents costs will be for caring for people arriving with little but their clothes.
Months-long discussions about whether to invite the Syrians were limited to the mayor, a small circle of city and business leaders, and a nonprofit resettlement agency. The president of the Board of Aldermen, who knew about the effort, did not tell his colleagues until a day or two before Louras announced the plans at an April 26 news conference.
“There was no benefit to anyone to spread the knowledge,” William Notte, the aldermen president, said in an interview.
Louras made no apologies for excluding the public from the planning. If the proposal had been floated earlier, the mayor said, the debate would have become “about them” — meaning the Syrians, their culture, and possible links to terrorism — instead of whether the city had the means to accommodate the refugees.
Once the logistical questions were quietly answered, Louras said, the timing was right for an announcement in this city of 16,500 people, which is 95 percent white and overwhelmingly of Eurpoean ancestry.
“I own it. I took the hits, and I’ll continue to take the hits,” Louras said recently at a downtown pig roast, where he helped dish out the pork to benefit a children’s museum.
Giving the refugees a home here will put Rutland on the right side of history, the mayor and Notte said.
“The benefits, economically and culturally, that we will recognize is exactly what the community needs at this time,” said Louras, the grandson of a Greek immigrant who fled the Ottoman Turks a century ago. “As much as I want to say it’s for compassionate reasons, I realize that there is not a vibrant, growing, successful community in the country right now that is not embracing new Americans.”
A big embrace would come from Rutland Regional Medical Center, where president Thomas Huebner said he has 120 job openings. Many of those jobs — including housekeepers, food-service workers, nurses, and technicians — might be a match for the Syrians, he said.
Other pieces of the puzzle appear to be in place, city officials said.
A 30-year decline in population has left Rutland with plenty of affordable housing. School officials have said they can absorb refugee children who do not speak English. And the federal government’s vetting of the refugees will be exhaustive, Louras said.
“I wouldn’t do this unless I knew and could speak with conviction that we are not putting the community at risk,” Louras said.
The effort is being shepherded by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit organization that has helped bring 8,000 refugees to Vermont since 1989 — a number that includes families from Bosnia, Bhutan, Vietnam, and Somalia.
The committee is one of nine agencies that work with the State Department to find homes for refugees across the country. The Rutland proposal faces a May 20 deadline to be submitted for federal review, and a decision is expected by July.
In the interim, volunteer and church groups are preparing to help with furnishings, clothing, and other needs.
“I know there is a good-heartedness to this city,” said Huebner, the hospital president, whose paternal grandparents fled Nazi Germany in 1939. “If you come here and want to help and make the community better, Rutlanders will welcome you with open arms.”
The mayor’s strategy of keeping the plan quiet is supported by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, which is a field office of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. The program’s executive director, Amila Merdzanovic, called the hidden talks “the right thing to do — to move slowly, keep it to a small circle of people, and then expand.”
Merdzanovic, in e-mails obtained by the Rutland Herald, had stressed the importance of secrecy all along.
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not sharing the information, even if it is confidentially,” she wrote April 10 to the director of the State Refugee Office.
In an April 14 e-mail to the mayor, Merdzanovic said that her headquarters was worried about scheduling a public forum.
“If we open it up to anybody and everybody, all sorts of people will come out of [the] woodwork,” she wrote. “Anti-immigrant, anti-anything. They suggest that the forum be invite-only but make it as wide as possible.”
Now that the plan is in the open, public sentiment appears solidly positive. At a recent hearing at City Hall, supporters outnumbered opponents, 2 to 1.
And for the foes? “Those concerns are based in fear,” Louras said. “When educated, those fears will be abated.”