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Rutland Bound: Volunteers Ready for Syrian Refugees

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Center left to right: Erica Wallstrom, Madison Akin and Bex Akin at the Rutland Welcomes rally - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Center left to right: Erica Wallstrom, Madison Akin and Bex Akin at the Rutland Welcomes rally

Most days, Carol Tashie can be found working in the dirt on her organic farm just outside Rutland. But last Thursday afternoon, Tashie and some 40 men, women and children stood along the busy corner of Main and West streets in the Marble City, waving signs declaring "Rutland Welcomes." Dozens of passing motorists honked their horns in support as they drove past; some drivers even flashed their own signs or stickers bearing the same motto.

It was a public celebration for members of the organically grown Rutland Welcomes, who had learned just the day before that some 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees would begin moving to the area by the end of the year. Last Wednesday's decision served as a validation of sorts for the group that formed shortly after Rutland Mayor Chris Louras announced plans in April for the city to become a new refugee resettlement site.

"This isn't about gloating," Hunter Berryhill, a local English teacher and member of Rutland Welcomes, said of the gathering. "The hard work is about to begin. This isn't the finish line."

Berryhill admitted the last several months have been tumultuous and marked by uncertainty as the group awaited approval from the U.S. Department of State. Louras' spring announcement sparked immediate backlash from some locals, who accused the mayor of working unilaterally and in private on a public issue. His critics included some of the city's aldermen, who said they were blindsided. Louras had spent months hatching the plan with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and discussed it with some city officials, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) office.

An investigation recently cleared Louras of charges that he abused his mayoral powers.

But it hasn't eliminated concerns about whether the new residents would strain resources in the city of 16,000. Could the schools take more children? What about jobs?

"I'm not opposed to refugee resettlement, but I think the scale is far too large, and I'm concerned it will increase property taxes much faster than we can absorb," said Wendy Wilton, the Rutland City treasurer and a member of what she described as the "loose-knit" Rutland First group. Its adherents are against the proposed influx of immigrants.

The group's spokespeople insist that their objection doesn't stem from bigotry or racism. The Rutland First Facebook page, however, hosts ignorant, xenophobic comments along the lines of: Would these Muslims bring sharia law? Would their arrival imperil community safety? Would they transport diseases from overseas?

Elsewhere on social media, some commenters have even alluded to violence — which has not gone unnoticed by officials.

"I've had discussions with the U.S. attorney, Eric Miller, and he has worked with his team, and they developed a plan and a strategy to assess the language and determine whether or not it's actionable," Louras said. "And that's their job."

Two weeks after Louras publicized his proposal in April, about 170 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church to discuss how they could support the refugees. Out of that meeting, Rutland Welcomes formed a core leadership team, as well as 17 subcommittees. The highly organized outfit held forums and did outreach at events such as farmers' markets and summer festivals.

"I've always believed that the overwhelming majority of people in Rutland are caring, loving and excited to enter this opportunity to welcome new neighbors," Tashie said.

Along with a Facebook page, the group runs a website, and its members use Slack, an instant messaging-like application, to swap information and upload meeting minutes and sign-up sheets.

"I have a dresser, side table, table lamps, dinnerware for eight and a stockpot that I'd like to donate when a storage site is found," wrote Sara Longworth on the #donations channel.

Julia Riell gave some culinary tips on the #welcome-wagon channel, while another advocate, a Syrian woman who moved to Rutland several years ago, advised the group to buy mint plants because Syrians use the herb liberally.

Jennie Gartner, who was born and raised in Rutland, said she often worked 20 hours a week on the effort. The cause struck a chord with her: She's Jewish and her grandfather fled Nazi Germany. Although she doesn't consider herself particularly religious, she said she knows what it's like to be a minority in a small town.

"Have we learned nothing from history? We can't just stand and turn our backs on the people in need," Gartner said. "It doesn't matter where they're from; they could be from the moon — they're welcome," she added.

Marsha Cassel admitted that Rutland Welcomes was shocked by the anti-refugee backlash. "We just weren't thinking of other perspectives, which was naïve and insensitive as well," said Cassel, a local educator and volunteer. "I was dragged through hate speech for three weeks," she added.

There's still simmering discontent. During the gathering Thursday, one man, waiting at a red light in a Jeep with his window rolled down, began yelling at Louras. The mayor recognized the man, a father he'd seen at the soccer field where his son plays, and offered to chat with the man at the next game.

"Personally, I think you should be kicked out," another man yelled from his vehicle — a black Chevy truck. "Just remember, Chris, if something happens, you're liable. An eye for an eye! What goes around comes around."

The Rutland Welcomes group began cheering to drown out the man, who hit the gas and flipped the bird as the light turned green.

Berryhill predicts the pushback will end when the Syrians, expected to be mostly women and children, begin to arrive.

CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna

"Once the refugees are here, once they're in our schools, once they're contributing to our economy, once they're playing with our kids, once we're having lunch with them, I think people are going to realize that refugees are simply people who need a second chance," he said. "And I think very soon our community is going to see this as a point of pride that we were the ones, when other communities said no, that we stepped forward and opened our doors to give these people a second chance."

Officials have always thought that Rutland would be a good place for refugees to start their lives anew, said Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Virginia. Blake said the "ongoing outpouring of support" and engagement from the Rutland Welcomes group is compelling and unprecedented, beyond anything else the USCRI had seen across the country. Some 10,000 Syrians resettled across 40 states in the last year.

In the coming year, VRRP expects to place an additional 350 refugees in Chittenden County — and Syrians are likely to be among them, according to director Amila Merdzanovic.

Rutland won't see its new arrivals before December, but in the meantime, VRRP will open an office in the city and start hiring and training staff. Merdzanovic said she and her team would make regular trips to Rutland as part of that process. They'll also provide support and advice to the Rutland office once it's up and running. Volunteers in other locales such as Middlebury have offered to provide Arabic-speaking translators.

Louras said he still needs to formalize the makeup of his "Resettlement Cabinet," which was designed to advise him on the process. The inner circle will include supporters, as well as skeptics who are "outcomes-driven and community-minded and looking for solutions," the mayor said. "Their voice is going to be very important to ensure that we do this the right way."

Members of Rutland Welcomes are finalizing plans, too, from collecting cash donations to offering cultural information to the community. They scrapped plans for a second donation drive because the first one generated more than enough items to fill the available storage space.

Despite its prep work, the group expects the first wave of refugees to have unanticipated needs.

"We know there will be all kinds of things that we didn't even think about, even in our 18-plus committees," Cassel said.

Typically, VRRP learns about an impending arrival between one and two weeks in advance, explained Merdzanovic, the agency's director. Basic personal information such as the refugee's education level, family composition and origin is also passed along. A case manager assigned to the individual secures housing and purchases basic necessities. That individual gets in touch with health care providers and, when appropriate, local schools.

Each new arrival gets $925 in cash as well as language, housing and employment assistance.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also awarded Vermont $150,000 for support services to help Rutland's refugees "achieve self-sufficiency." For privacy reasons, and to avoid overwhelming the new arrivals, Merdzanovic said volunteers will only be enlisted if a refugee gives consent.

"This is going to be the model for small-town refugee resettlement in the United States," Gartner predicted.

Vermont's third-largest city can look to its neighbors to the north for advice and support, according to University of Vermont assistant professor Pablo Bose. He's been studying the effects of refugee resettlement in nontraditional U.S. sites that don't have immigration histories or the infrastructure of established gateway cities such as New York City. Using Burlington and Winooski as case studies, Bose examines how refugees adapt to their new country and how the resettlement affects their new communities.

Burlington is "not perfect," Bose said. "There are things you can always improve. But I think a lot of things have worked really well that have changed the fabric of Chittenden County for the better."

He added, "I think this has the potential to do the same for Rutland."

When Louras got the news on Wednesday, it was his turn to be blindsided. He had flown into Burlington the night before, drove two hours to Rutland, and was functioning on just a few hours of sleep when his phone rang just before 9 a.m. Rutland Herald reporter Gordon Dritschilo was on the line.

"So," Dritschilo asked. "What do you think?"

Louras didn't have a clue. "What do you mean, what do I think?" he asked.

For the next 48 hours, Louras was busy doing interviews, but he showed up at 5 p.m. sharp on Thursday to stand with the group that has supported him. Their congratulations outnumbered the drive-by heckles.

After an hour of sign waving and cheering, Tashie called everyone over to a spot in the park, where the group surrounded a smiling, relaxed Louras. "We need to make sure that, as we work very hard to welcome our new neighbors, we also work really hard to make sure people know that we need Chris Louras to continue his leadership, his vision," Tashie reminded the group.

"Do we have the energy to sustain this for as long as we need?" Tashie asked them. "The answer is..." she started to say, until her voice was drowned out by the group's resounding and unanimous "Yes!"


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