The Latchis Theater in Brattleboro will screen a new film on refugee resettlement
The Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro is one of many places around the country screening the film Utica: The Last Refuge this week. It's an award winning documentary that highlights the success Utica, New York has had welcoming refugees into their community.
And on May 13, a panel of Vermont community members and refugees will discuss the social and economic impacts of these refugee programs around Vermont — impacts they say have been overwhelmingly positive.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke Dr. Pablo Bose, director of Global and Regional Studies at the University of Vermont. Bose has been tracing the effects of refugee resettlement in the state and nationwide. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So what's been happening in this small southern Vermont community of Brattleboro that makes the screening of the documentary there especially significant?
Dr. Pablo Bose: Yeah, that's a great question. What is it that we can learn about refugee resettlement in places like Brattleboro? I moved to Vermont from Toronto — a big city that has had a lot of immigrant resettlement over the years. And that's a similar kind of story that when you look at the New Yorks and the Chicagos and the LAs — we've got long histories of that. But what we've seen over the last 20 to 30 years is that immigrants, in general, have been moving to smaller towns. And what we see with refugees, in particular, is that they've been following the same kind of pattern.
But what is less well-known is kind of what happens to people when they move to these places that are outside of the major metro areas. What happens to the places that receive them? And what can that sort of tell us about the future of immigration and refugees?
Who are the refugees that you've been working with or helping in Brattleboro? Where are they from and about how many of them have resettled there?
Brattleboro is a much newer location in Vermont. Historically, pretty much all of the refugee resettlement happened in Chittenden Count. And within Chittenden County, almost all the refugees were resettled in Burlington, Winooski and sort of the surrounding metropolitan area.
Most famously, or infamously, back in 2016-2017, there was a proposal to put Syrian refugees in Rutland, which ran into the headwinds of national controversies around that and the attacks on resettlement programs.
When, under the Biden administration, there was this proposal to restart refugee resettlement in general, Brattleboro came up as one of the places where there was a desire to try something new — whether or not a new resettlement site could be started. It's been, to begin with, Afghan refugees. So that's been the real focus of the program nationally, right now — Afghan refugees. And a little under 200 individuals have come to southern Vermont through this program as of right now.
And I loved this documentary because it showed so many of the different kinds of aspects of what was going on. It doesn't shy away from telling those harder stories and the very real ups and downs that people encounter, but it also gives such a kind of a vivid portrait of the ways in which a neighborhood can really resuscitate itself.Pablo Bose, director of Global and Regional Studies at the University of Vermont
And what has the reception been like for them? What are they saying about it? What's the community saying about it. How it's gone so far?
You know, there's been some bumps along the way. But for the most part, it's been quite successful. There's been a lot of community support, a lot of innovation that's been going on. And there's also been a lot of support for this from the agencies that are based in Chittenden County, which have more experience doing some of this work — especially in Vermont.
Dr. Bose, I don't want to focus just on the negative, but you did bring up the experience in Rutland in 2016. Does it matter where these refugees come from? You mentioned those were mostly Syrian refugees that were proposed to be resettled in Rutland. The refugees we're talking about here in Brattleboro, mostly from Afghanistan. Certainly people are going to be thinking about refugees possibly coming from Ukraine in the near future. So does this make a difference about where these folks are coming from?
Yeah, I mean, this is one of the curiosities that, for a long time the refugee program in the U.S. has resettled people from multiple different places. And especially since the 1980s or so we've had refugees from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We've had refugees from Bosnia and central Europe, from Burma, from Bhutan, a number of different refugee communities from Africa. And it's certainly true that many of them have struggled with different kinds of issues in resettling here — the question of race, of religion.
But by-and-large refugee resettlement in Vermont has been pretty successful. I think what happened in Rutland — as I said, national headwinds, you know— this was a period right after 2015-2016 — you'd seen this great kind of uptick in global anxieties around terrorism, about migrant influxes into Europe, in particular. A number of different things that got unfairly, in many cases, kind of tagged on to Syrian refugees in particular.
There were a lot of people who were very supportive of refugee resettlement in Rutland. There were other people who were vocally opposed. Now, there are some legitimate criticisms that you could raise about the process and about some of the concerns that people might have legitimately had. But there are lots of other kinds of anxieties that really are just masking other kinds of issues that people might have had, as you said. It might have been because they're Muslim refugees, because they're Syrian, whatever it is.
But beyond this, between 2014 and 2019, I asked a question on the annual Vermonter Poll regarding support for refugee resettlement, and I found a pretty consistently high level of support amongst Vermonters across the state for refugee resettlement. I'm asking that question again this year. And I'll be curious to see the answer.
And what about this documentary? I mean, it's focused on Utica, not Brattleboro specifically. But are folks in Brattleboro going to come away seeing this maybe getting a greater understanding of these efforts?
You know, sometimes we get the kind of story of refugee resettlement which is all and only about hardship, and that often also leaves out the story of the place that is being resettled into. And I loved this documentary because it showed so many of the different kinds of aspects of what was going on. It doesn't shy away from telling those harder stories and the very real ups and downs that people encounter, but it also gives such a kind of vivid portrait of the ways in which a neighborhood can really resuscitate itself. Homes being reoccupied and fixed up. Businesses being started and restarted.
One of the reasons that I think a film like this can be so useful for cities like Brattleboro, but also Rutland and other places in the Midwest that kind of look at this story of revitalization — is it's a really hopeful story, and that's what I really like about it.