scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Unwelcome plan for refugees shakes up Vermont city

Chris Louras served five terms as the mayor of Rutland, Vt.,, before a plan to bring in refugees led to his ouster.Corey Hendrickson for the Boston Globe

RUTLAND, Vt. — Christopher Louras, newly unemployed, gazed out a coffee shop toward the sloping street where his Greek immigrant grandfather, and then his father, set up businesses in the heart of this small, once-bustling city.

Louras had been trounced days earlier in his bid for a sixth term as mayor, and the reason seemed obvious to him.

“I can’t attribute it to anything other than refugee resettlement,” said Louras, a 56-year-old Army veteran who championed the controversial effort to bring 100 Syrian refugees here. “The support in the community simply collapsed.”

The election, which reflected the national dialogue on immigration and refugees, exposed the depth of division in Rutland. Like President Trump’s surprising victory, the breadth of opposition to the refugee plan did not fully emerge until the ballots were counted.


Only two Syrian families — a total of nine people — have arrived in Rutland amid the tumult surrounding Trump’s bid to halt travel to the United States from several predominantly Muslim countries.

Whether any other Syrians follow them is cloudy at best, even though their resettlement in this western Vermont city has been approved by the US State Department.

“The odds are very, very good that these will be the last two families,” said Louras, who was drubbed by David Allaire, a city alderman, 52 percent to 34 percent in a four-way race.

“Individuals who opposed refugee resettlement were opposed due to fears, both rational and irrational,” Louras said. “They didn’t give themselves enough of a chance to understand that these are families who are simply trying to rebuild their lives.”

A pedestrian walked up Center Street in Rutland, Vt.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file/Globe Staff

But the newly elected mayor sees the results differently. Instead of a referendum on the refugees, Allaire said his landslide victory was partly due to Louras’s effort to keep much of the process out of public view.


Voters, Allaire said, “want their leaders to be forthright and open.”

Allaire and others had accused Louras of a lack of transparency in the months-long talks, held in private, that eventually led to federal approval for 100 refugees to settle here. Even the city’s aldermen, with the exception of the board’s president, were in the dark until shortly before Louras announced the plan last April.

When Louras later opposed a citywide vote on the effort — “We just do not get to vote on who our neighbors are,” he said — many residents turned against him. Instead of the humanitarian emergency that Louras described, his foes said they saw a clandestine end-run around grass-roots democracy.

“I had no issue with the refugees themselves,” Allaire said. “If we had been in the decision-making process from the beginning, we would not have had this division.”

Although Louras said resettlement might be finished in Rutland, refugee officials are hoping that 40 more Syrians will arrive.

“It is quite devastating,” said Amila Merdzanovic, executive director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. “It is un-American. It stands against everything this country is about.”

But bringing more refugees to Rutland, a city of 16,500 people whose population has declined for decades, could meet a newly emboldened resistance.

City Treasurer Wendy Wilton, another opponent of the plan, has complained that property taxes would skyrocket 35 percent in five years under the original plan — a claim that Louras called preposterous — and that 100 refugees would be only the beginning.


Wendy Wilton, city treasurer at Rutland, Vt.Corey Hendrickson for the Boston Globe

“New Englanders don’t like to be told to do anything,” Wilton said in an interview. “People were very angry.”

Wilton also criticized the news media, whose coverage raised questions about Rutland’s capacity for tolerance.

“We elected the first African-American alderman in this election,” Wilton said. “If Rutland were a rotten, racist, bigoted place, would we have done that?”

But anger permeated the debate, and some of it was vented through Rutland First, an organization that demanded answers to what resettlement would mean. Many postings on the group’s website reveled in Louras’s defeat, and some have been laced with warnings about Muslims and Islam.

One comment read, “Wake up, Rutland. The idiot Louras is obsessed with endangering your family and mine, flooding our town with improperly vetted refugees.”

Another message complained about a video being shown to students on the meaning of the hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women. “Rutland High School is making their students in English class watch this video and others like this. They are also reading books with violence toward women in them. They are NOT teaching any other religion in these English classes, just Islam,” the posting read.

High school principal Bill Olsen said the video is being shown to ninth-grade English students in conjunction with “Ali and Nino,” an assigned book about a love affair between a Muslim and a Christian during World War I.

A room awaited incoming refugee children in Rutland.Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for the Boston Globe

“Part of what we’re trying to do is understand history and culture around the world,” said Olsen, who called the posting “misinformed.” High school students are exposed not only to the history and tenets of Islam, but also to Christianity and Judaism, among other religions, he said.


Olsen recently attended a dinner with the two Syrian families. “They really are lovely families. Just as lovely and generous are the Rutland community members involved in helping with the new families’ transition to the United States,” Olsen said.

The two adult men in the families have jobs, friends said. The children have started school, and volunteers help drive the families partway to prayers, which are held about 70 miles away at a mosque in the Burlington area.

Tricia Huebner, who co-owns a bookstore in Rutland, praised Louras for his courage, even as she questioned the process.

“It should have been more transparent,” Huebner said. “But what Chris did was very brave — morally, ethically, in every way.”

Louras said he has no regrets.

“It still was the correct process,” said Louras, who shrugged when asked where his career is headed. “There’s no better reason to get deelected than doing the right thing and saving people’s lives.”

MacQuarrie can be reached at