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News & Issues June 2016


Seeking refuge in Vermont

Rutland’s plan to resettle displaced Syrians draws praise — and a backlash

Representatives of state and national refugee resettlement organizations take questions from city aldermen and the public at a May 25 forum George Bouret photoBy C.B. HALL
Contributing writer



Representatives of state and national refugee resettlement organizations take questions from city aldermen and the public at a May 25 forum in Rutland. The refugee placement organizations have been working with the city’s mayor on a plan to bring 100 Syrian refugees to Rutland. George Bouret photo

When the word got out in late April that Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras had volunteered his city as the new home for 100 refugees from Syria, the reaction from his fellow elected officials was swift and skeptical.

“This is going to be a fiasco if you haven’t carefully thought it all out,” veteran state Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, warned in an e-mail to Louras on the evening before the mayor formally announced his plan April 26.

“Maybe it is a good plan,” Mullin continued, “but I feel like I am being blindsided.”
Over the past month, it’s become clear that plenty of other Rutlanders are feeling blindsided or worse. Criticism of the refugee resettlement so far has focused as much on the secrecy of the planning process as on any specific concern about the city’s prospective new residents. The sense that the plan was hatched in secret appears to be adding to the opposition.

To be sure, many local people have stepped forward to help welcome the refugees, who will begin arriving in October if all goes as planned. A newly formed community group, Rutland Welcomes, claims 175 members and is setting up multiple committees to help with everything from finding housing to navigating the local bus system.

But when representatives of state and national refugee resettlement organizations came to town May 25 to answer questions from city aldermen and the public, they faced a crowd of more than 100 -- and a reception that from many people bordered on hostility.

Some opponents are now collecting petition signatures in hopes of forcing a nonbinding citywide vote on the refugee resettlement effort, and some are listening to more extreme voices. In late May, for example, a crowd of opponents packed a meeting room at the city library to hear a presentation by a nationally known anti-immigration activist who claims the refugee resettlement is part of a leftist plot.

Whether the refugees are actually brought to Rutland depends on a decision by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The agency is expected to rule in July on a proposal crafted by Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program in cooperation with the mayor. Both the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, based in the Burlington suburb of Colchester, and its parent organization, the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, are private charitable organizations that receive most of their funding from federal grants.


Humanitarian crisis
The Rutland proposal represents a tiny part of an international effort to cope with a wave of more than 5 million people who have fled the ongoing civil war in Syria. Many of these refugees have wound up in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, but hundreds of thousands have made the treacherous crossing to Europe by boat.

President Obama pledged last year to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States. Humanitarian aid organizations such as Oxfam International say the nation should do far more.
In an interview, Laurie Stavrand, the community partnership coordinator for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, characterized the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis as “meager.”
But even the president’s goal has been difficult to meet. Only 2,500 Syrian refugees have been resettled to the United States so far, their progress slowed by a newly toughened vetting process that Congress imposed late last year amid heightened fears of terrorism.

Among Rutlanders who are concerned about doing their part to relieve the humanitarian crisis, the mayor’s efforts are seen as heroic.

At a informational meeting on the refugee resettlement held May 11 at the city’s Unitarian Universalist Church, Theresa Krieger, the church’s president, called Louras “incredibly courageous,” and the nearly 150 people in the audience gave the mayor a standing ovation. The crowd – more than one interested citizen for each expected refugee – appeared ready to move heaven and earth to assist the newcomers with everything from learning English to finding their way around the city.

“Traditionally, the city of Rutland has been an extremely welcoming place,” said Carol Tashie, a local organic farmer and activist who helped organize the session, said in an interview.
But at a forum hosted by the city’s Board of Aldermen two weeks later, the mood was far different. About 100 people packed into the city’s senior center for the May 25 session, which featured two guest speakers – Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, and Stacie Blake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants.

Also present were four Rutland city policemen. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program asked for police protection at the session after Merdzanovic received an online message that people were “arming up for her visit,” Board of Alderman Chairman William Notte said.
The meeting unfolded without incident, but Merdzanovic and Blake faced a tough crowd.
“I have never seen the city so divided, so angry,” longtime city resident Dawn Hance said from the floor.

Comments questioning the resettlement effort easily outnumbered those applauding it. Various aldermen chastised Merdzanovic for keeping the plans out of the public’s view until the April 26 rollout.

Blake apologized “for what has clearly been perceived as a slight.”
“From my point of view, and the point of view of a lot of people, it was more than a slight,” Alderman David Allaire responded.

Those attending the session included James Simpson, a national activist who had packed the city library’s meeting room for an anti-refugee resettlement presentation the night before. Simpson has written a book, “The Red-Green Axis: Refugees, Immigration and the Agenda to Erase America,” and claims the refugee resettlement effort is part of an anti-American plot driven by the United Nations and Islamist radicals.


Speaking for a city?
Louras and Notte, the Board of Alderman chairman, both have defended the secrecy that surrounded Rutland’s refugee resettlement effort prior to the late April announcement. In news interviews over the past month, the mayor has contended that the city needed to quietly assess whether it could develop a workable program before announcing it to the public.

But the secrecy immediately became a sore point with public officials who hadn’t been included in the discussions. On the day after he announced the resettlement effort, the mayor found himself in Montpelier, where he explained to a gathering of Rutland County legislators, in a somewhat apologetic tone, that “sometimes information needs to be controlled during a review process and during a decision-making process,” according to news reports of the session.

“There was stressfulness, let’s call it that,” said state Rep. Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, one of the legislators attending the session. “Members of the Legislature had no idea ahead of time of what was going on. … Their constituencies, at the same time, were very nervous about it.”

But whatever misgivings local legislators expressed, Louras forged ahead with the plan. The next day, April 28, he sent the State Department a letter in support of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program’s application to place the refugees in Rutland. Louras’ letter, on Rutland city stationery, uses the pronoun “we” and gives the impression that he is speaking on behalf the city.

Other city officials are disputing that.
In an interview on the day after the May 25 forum, city Alderman Edward Larson said he had been completely unaware of the mayor’s letter.

“This sets the city of Rutland as being totally in support of this, and that was certainly not the case at the meeting last night,” Larson said.


Keeping it confidential
The seeds of the current controversy actually were planted in December, when Louras called the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program about the possibility of hosting some of the millions who have fled the Syrian civil war. E-mails reviewed for this story indicate that Louras’ call set off a carefully controlled process in which a handful of key players were consulted while the general public was told nothing.

In a March 28 e-mail to Louras, Merdzanovic said she saw an upcoming meeting of Project Vision, a Rutland interagency working group striving to alleviate the city’s drug problem, as “a good opportunity for us to reach a wide group of community members.” But on April 14 – weeks after the meeting at Grace Church that was described to the State Department as “public” -- she advised Louras that her national affiliate had “concern … about holding a public forum.”

“If we open it up to anybody and everybody,” Merdzanovic wrote, “all sorts of people will come out of the woodwork. Anti-immigrant, anti-anything.”

Merdzanovic’s e-mails, including those addressed to public officials, bear a boilerplate notice of confidentiality. Amplifying the desire for privacy in an April 10 e-mail to two state officials, she wrote, “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not sharing the information even if it is confidentially. Please respect our process.”

But in an mid-May interview, Blake, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, seemed to dispute the notion that the process had been overly secretive.

“The mayor has had a press conference and I think has shared a lot of information with the community,” she said. “There was quite a large meeting at the U-U church.” (That meeting took place two weeks after Louras announced the resettlement plan.)

The role of Merdzanovic’s and Blake’s organizations included filing the mid-May application to the State Department for the resettlement of refugees in Vermont. The application includes an attachment specific to Rutland.

Under the heading “Community Engagement,” the document states that “since January 2016,” Merdzanovic’s organization “has engaged with community organizations, businesses, religions groups, and government officials to provide information about refugee resettlement ... in Rutland.” It also says that that in March, the group “organized a public presentation on resettlement and volunteer opportunities at Grace Church in Rutland.”

That meeting was not advertised publicly and received no press coverage, however.

‘Those who know’

From e-mail exchanges it seems clear that the mayor tried to keep the general public from finding out too much as the project took shape. After Merdzanovic told him, in a March 7 e-mail, “If you are still in the quiet stage of the project, we understand,” he responded that the city was committed to working with her organization and that “we have expanded the group of ‘those who know.’”

Notte said in an interview that he was the only one of the 11 city aldermen who was privy to the preparatory work leading up to the April 26 announcement.

The mayor said in an interview that he had expected to have more time to break the news to the general public.

“Frankly I believed . . . that the process was going to take a little longer, so that we would have been able to develop a public information plan that better communicated our intentions than having to have a public announcement,” Louras said. “But due to the timing of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program’s application to the Department of State, … the timing was much quicker than we’d anticipated.”

In a May 3 meeting with the Rutland Town Select Board, Notte, who has supported the resettlement plan, said he regretted the need for secrecy but that “the program would have been undermined by opposing city officials,” according to a report in the Rutland Herald.

Louras, when asked what role public opinion should play in whether the city accepts refugees, reiterated an argument he has used since the beginning of the controversy.

“In the course of U.S. history, we have not gotten to vote on who lives in our community,” he said.
Since April 26, the mayor has pointed out repeatedly that he is the grandson of a Greek immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1906 -- without any plebiscite as to whether he could settle in Rutland.

Federal laws on immigration have become much more restrictive since then, however, and the government plays a much more active role in managing the settlement of those who are classified as refugees.


Benefit or burden?
Louras has insisted the refugee program will not add to the burden of city taxpayers.
“There will be no increase to the Rutland city budget associated with the refugee resettlement,” he said. “That won’t change our budget for police, fire or public works.”

Instead, he predicted, the influx of new residents will help the city of 16,000, which has been losing population for many years and consequently ha ample housing stock to accommodate the new arrivals.

“What the community will derive is clear benefits – economically and culturally,” Louras said. “Our population is declining, and employers can’t find people to fill entry-level positions and consequently cannot grow their businesses. … Likewise, the cultural enrichment that will be provided by a more diverse population ... will contribute to a more livable Rutland.”

But critics fear the influx of refugees will inevitably become an economic stressor.

“I don’t understand how this decision, which carries a huge burden of taxpayer funding as well as public employee resources time, can be unilaterally made by Mayor Louras,” Rutland resident Dan Daigle wrote in an online comment to a VTDigger article after the refugee program was unveiled in late April. “How can we ignore the cries of our citizens who are overtaxed to the point of losing their homes?”

Before adjourning in early May, the Legislature, at the behest of state Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland, approved a $3,000 grant to the city “for refugee resettlement support.”

In response to a query from another area legislator, Helm, the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office said in a memo that refugees would be eligible for “all means-tested benefits offered by the state under the same program criteria that all applicants must meet.” In other words, the refugees potentially would be eligible for Medicaid, temporary assistance to needy families, child-care support and home heating aid.

Helm and others say that means the state could wind up paying a lot.

“How much is this going to cost us?” Helm asked. “We’re already overburdened with costs, primarily in human services, across the state.”


Support and criticism
In a series of e-mails sent to the mayor’s office after the April 26 announcement, lots of Rutlanders expressed support for the refugees. One after another, organizational leaders and ordinary citizens praised the mayor and offered to help with interpreters, living space, or just moral support.

Bruce Bouchard, executive director of the Paramount Theater, said he looked forward to holding parties for the refugees at the theater “as a giant warm friendly wave of ‘How Do You Do?’”
But there were some thorns amid the roses in the mayor’s inbox.

“I hope they all live in your neighborhood, you fool,” wrote a Richard Bergen. “We all better lock up the kids now!”

Robert Underhill of Clarendon wrote, “If this is such a good idea it would have withstood seeking input from the larger community. My guess is that you knew it wouldn’t and that is why you did it all in secret.”

Excluding the community, Underhill predicted, “is going to impede acceptance of the Syrians because people will not have had a forum to discuss their concerns and fears.”
In the past month there have been several public forums, however. The mayor hosted a question-and-answer period for area public officials May 12 at the Rutland library – while as many as 20 protesters gathered outside holding signs such as “‘We the people,’ not ‘Me the Mayor.’” Louras invited the protesters inside to join the discussion, but none took him up on the offer.


Push for a vote
Now some opponents are circulating a petition that effectively calls for a citywide vote on whether Rutland should “decline to participate in the refugee resettlement program at this time.”

A vote against the resettlement would have no legal force but would raise the policy question of whether refugees should be resettled in a city that doesn’t want them.

David Trapeni, a retired Rutland businessman who unsuccessfully challenged Louras for mayor in 2009, announced the petition drive May 16 and said three days later that the effort had already collected the signatures of the 5 percent of registered voters required under the city charter to force a plebiscite on certain issues. It does not, however, appear that the vote he is seeking is covered by that threshold.

Trapeni would not identify the lawyers who helped to draft the petition language, saying they wanted to remain anonymous.

The city charter allows the mayor, with the approval of the city aldermen, to call a special meeting allowing for a public vote on any issue “when he or she feels such a meeting is necessary for the public good.” Louras did not respond to several inquiries about whether he would be willing to call the special meeting the petition requests.

Trapeni said that, among those signing the petition, the complaint voiced most frequently was “the mayor’s lack of transparency,” while the second most frequent concern was who would pay for the resettlement. Third, he said, was the need perceived to take care of disadvantaged persons already in Rutland, while social problems potentially caused by the refugees ranked fourth, in his estimation.

“When you look at this thing, you really don’t have to look at anything but the economics,” Trapeni said. “We’re a very poor city.”

He also asserted that people from Syria were unlikely to assimilate.

“They don’t believe in the separation of church and state, because their whole existence is wrapped around their religion,” he said. “That’s the issue.”

Others have raised more specifically xenophobic concerns, saying the new arrivals might insist on adherence to “Sharia law” or might be secretly allied with terrorists.


Welcome to Rutland
Tashie, the farmer and activist who supports the refugee resettlement, predicted the city ultimately will welcome the displaced Syrians.

“Change is difficult,” she said. “I can’t say exactly why people who are nervous about this or concerned about this are. I have complete confidence that once the people move here, the good citizens of Rutland will put aside their concerns, put aside any differences they may have, and welcome these people just like we have welcomed everybody else who has entered into our community.”

At the meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church, local rabbi Joanie Chase and Laila Sido, a Syrian Muslim woman who has lived in Rutland since 2010, sat side by side in the front pew.
Sido’s husband, Mike Kalil, also hails from Syria and said that, in his 16 years in Rutland, he has never been the target of any discrimination. He sought to assuage fears about the prospective new arrivals.

“These folks have been through some horrible things, horrible times in the last four or five years,” Kalil said. “In my opinion, it would be positive for the city to have this diversity, because the city obviously doesn’t have that much diversity of cultures.”

Asked to comment on fears that the immigrants will practice Sharia law – or insist on being cared for by nurses of the same sex at the local hospital -- he called these concerns “completely inaccurate – almost laughable.”

“Even in Syria, Sharia was not a law that they were following,” Kalil said. “The government was a secular government.”

The refugees, he said, are “just happy to get out of that situation. They’re in constant fear.”