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Rutland Gets Approval For Plan To Resettle Syrian Refugees

Nina Keck
VPR file
A controversial plan to resettle up to 100 Syrian refugees has been approved by the U.S. State Department, according to the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

Rutland will become Vermont’s newest refugee resettlement community - that’s according to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the organization that will head up the effort in Rutland.

Up to 100 mostly Syrian refugees are expected to move to Rutland over the next year; the first families may arrive as early as December.  More will follow in years to come.

Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said in a phone interview this morning the U.S. State Department had informed her that their Rutland application had been approved.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, which is affiliated with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, will open an office in Rutland to assist the Syrians, according to program director Amila Merdzanovic.

“We know that when people’s lives have been disrupted, their ability to rebound is impressive, and we will work closely with the community to help refugees reclaim basic human rights and dignity and rebuild their lives,” Merdzanovic said in an email. 

Stacie Blake, director of community relations with USCRI, says once the federal budget is approved, they’ll begin to hire a staff of three for the Rutland office, begin their training and arrange for office space. 

The refugee issue has been a divisive one in Rutland. Many local residents and some city officials have questioned the cost of the program and voiced concerns about the screening refugees undergo, and Mayor Christopher Louras has faced criticism for conducting discussions in secret before announcing the proposalin April.

Some of that criticism has come from Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton. Wilton says after looking at school budgets in other cities that have taken in refugees, like Burlington, she worries Rutland's education costs will go up significantly. "I would really like to see us take it slow," Wilton said Wednesday after hearing the news that the State Department had accepted Rutland's application. "My numbers indicate that we could handle it. It'd be a little bit of a cost increase, but we could handle it at 25 [refugees] a year instead of 100 a year. I really think that could work for Rutland. We could get our arms around that and we have the capability to do it, but at 100 [refugees] a year, I think it's going to be tough."

Mayor Louras disputes Wilton's numbers, but debate in Rutland over the true cost of bringing refugees to Rutland has remained strong.

"Obviously we’ve been following the debate," Lavinia Limon of USCRI says, "and we know there are a lot of supporters there and a lot of people with concerns. And we think that when people actually meet these people, and they’re no longer a concept, but a real family with children and mom and dad, and people who survived the horrors of war who need a place to live.” 

The mayor agrees. But he admits there will be challenges. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to be hard work, but as with any challenge the Rutland community will prove that it's up to the challenge.  And this will bring out the best in the community," says Louras. "We'll come together and wounds will be healed and we'll be a model of refugee resettlement I'm convinced of that."

Members of Rutland Welcomes, a grassroots organization that formed to assist the refugees say they are thrilled at the State Department's decision. Member Marsha Cassel says they're also ready to help. “We’ve got people standing by to transport folks to school, enrollment, doctors appointments, we have tutors who are willing to teach adults English," she says. "We have tutors who want to read with children.”

Barbara Richter, another volunteer with the group, stands in a downtown Rutland storage room filled with donated pots, pans and linens. She says they've also got truckloads of donated furniture and household items ready to go. “With one phone call I could mobilize a network of people to come in here and take what they need to set up a home," Richter says. "At the same time, another group of people will be cleaning the apartment and home that someone is moving into.”

Since the conflict in Syria began, more than 4.8 million Syrians have had to flee their country. The Obama Administration promised to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this fiscal year. The effort was slow to start, but the U.S. has surpassed the president’s goal.

According to data compiled by the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, 12,430 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since Oct. 1 of last year. They’ve settled in all but 11 states.

No Syrian refugees have been resettled to Vermont yet.

Barbara Richter says helping with Rutland Welcomes has been incredibly moving, and she's excited to welcome the newcomers.

“To me, this is the future of the community that I have chosen to be a part of," she says. "America has always been a refuge for those in need, and I really see this as the future that we all look for and look to." 

Standing next to bags of winter clothing donated for the refugees, Richter says she can only imagine what it would be like to have to leave her home and relocate to a strange and foreign place.

"I would hope," she says, "that a room like this and a group like Rutland Welcomes would be waiting for me at the other end of the journey."   

Update 10:14 a.m. This post has been updated to include additional reporting.

Update 8:01 p.m. This post has been updated to include additional reporting.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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