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Nadworny: The Others

The mayor of Rutland wants to welcome Syrian refugees into the fabric of the community. He and his supporters claim the economically long-depressed area will gain a much-needed injection of people and energy. But there’s been a strong backlash. Rutland Firsters protest that they were kept out of the decision making process and that new immigrants will bring further economic hardship to the city. And flare-ups of ugly racism complicate matters further.

Many economic studies show that immigrants are highly entrepreneurial. And if you like big, bold examples, it’s worth noting that first and second generation immigrants launched companies like Apple, Google, eBay and Tesla.

But with issues like immigration, debate tends to be more emotional than rational. Even here in Vermont – with our long history of immigration – we sometimes forget a lot of that history.

In the early ‘90s I did some research for a documentary film on Swedish immigration to Vermont. I learned that the Estey Organ company in Brattleboro and the Vermont Marble company in Proctor actively recruited Swedes - thinking they’d fit in better, since they were both Protestant and blonde.

I visited both places and spoke with some of the children and grandchildren of the original immigrant Swedes – and heard some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful stories of the Swedes landing in Vermont and working hard.

One of the nicknames that greeted Swedes when they arrived here was Squarehead. This spoke to a common belief that the newcomers weren’t very smart. Immigrant children (now in their 80s) told me how they risked getting beaten up after school by Irish and German kids, reflecting their status at the very bottom of the American pile.

Back in Sweden, I often shared these stories that contrasted so strongly with the rose colored pictures of Swedish emigrants in the emotional paintings of Wilhelm Moberg and portrayed on the big screen by Max von Sydow and Liv Ulman. Today, Swedes call immigrants to Sweden Blackheads in reference to their usually dark hair. There are regular reports of fights between immigrants and native Swedes. But my Swedish colleagues simply couldn’t accept that their immigrant cousins had to endure anything like that in America.

Of course, almost every immigrant story is about the struggle to find the way to acceptance. As it was in Proctor and Brattleboro one hundred years ago, so it is in Rutland today.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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