News & Issues February-March 2017
Door slams shut as first refugees arrive
Only two Syrian families make it to Rutland before Trump halts program
By C.B. HALL
and FRED DALEY
Several hundred people took part in a Jan. 28 vigil in Rutland to express support for allowing Syrian refugees to resettle in the city. The flow of refugees was halted the previous day by President Trump. John Lazenby photos
The first of an expected 25 to 30 families of Syrian refugees arrived in Rutland on Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of President Trump.
But only two families made it to Vermont before the new president shut the door on the rest. On Jan. 27, Trump signed an executive order suspending immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days – and indefinitely banning the entry of Syrian refugees.
The presidential order upended months of preparations by Rutland Welcomes, a local volunteer group whose members aimed to help the refugees adjust to their new lives in Vermont.
And the order prompted several hundred people to gather for a pro-refugee vigil in Rutland’s Central Park as protests broke out at airports and cities around the globe on the weekend of Jan. 28.
Jennie Gartner, a spokeswoman for Rutland Welcomes, called the refugee ban “distressing, to say the least.”
“The president’s intentions are misguided,” Gartner said. “I think it goes against the best ideals of what it means to be an American.”
Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, who had volunteered the city as a refugee resettlement site and spent more than a year championing the refugees’ cause, expressed strong support for the city’s newest residents at the Jan. 28 rally.
“We are going to demonstrate the character of this community, the character of this state, and the character, hope and welcoming arms of an entire country,” he told the crowd.
But in an earlier post on his Facebook page, the mayor noted that Trump’s order will cut the number of refugees accepted from all countries by more than half, and he acknowledged that the “two families who joined our community last week will most likely be our last.”
Louras had predicted the refugees would be an economic boon to the city. But his handling of the resettlement plan, which he and a few key players spent several months developing in near secrecy before announcing it last April, had opened deep political rifts in the city. Now the mayor, a former Republican turned independent, is seeking re-election in March against a challenge from David Allaire, a city alderman backed by Rutland First, a local group that opposed the refugee program.
Fleeing a war zone
The Syrian refugees who made it Rutland before the ban consisted of a couple with two children and another couple with three. They lodged temporarily with local families in and just outside the city. Both of the refugee families moved into their own housing on the weekend of Jan. 28.
Greg Schillinger, who hosted one of the families when they first arrived, disputed the notion espoused by the president that the Syrian refugees were poorly vetted and posed a risk of terrorism.
“I don’t know all 23 million Syrians; I know four,” Schillinger said. “I’m sure that there are bad people among that 23 million, but where is the evidence that the current system of vetting is flawed? Who are the dangerous refugees who have already been admitted?”
Trump’s order effectively ends a commitment made by the Obama administration in 2015 to accept 10,000 new refugees from Syria. That number represents a tiny fraction of the estimated 5 million who’ve fled the violence and destruction of the Syrian civil war that began in 2011.
Hunter Berryhill of Rutland Welcomes said he thinks the local resettlement effort remains “the right thing to do, for the refugees and for the community of Rutland.”
“There are economic benefits that have been well established,” Berryhill said. “There’s a humanitarian crisis. That hasn’t changed.”
The executive order left little doubt as to the Trump administration’s intent. Although a draft of the document, leaked two days before the president signed the final order, instructed the secretaries of state and homeland security to act “as appropriate” to halt the processing of Syrian refugees, the final order omitted any reference to cabinet-level discretion.
The final order also added a statement terming the entry of Syrian refugees “detrimental” to U.S. interests. And while it barred entry of refugees from other nations for 120 days, the order shut out Syrians indefinitely.
Next steps unclear
The Rutland resettlement effort has been overseen by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a nonprofit group based in the Burlington suburb of Colchester. The organization is working with a large contingent of local volunteers organthrough Rutland Welcomes.
“We are taking directions from them,” Rutland Welcomes member Marsha Cassel said, describing the relationship. “We are just the citizen volunteer group.”
Official at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report. It was unclear whether the Rutland might be able to receive Iraqi refugees, who could be admitted after a 120-day delay under Trump’s order. Officials had previously suggested a small number of Iraqi refugees might be among the 100 people resettled to Rutland.
The resettlement group recently opened a new office in the Howe Center in downtown Rutland to help the Syrian families who were expected to arrive in the city from January through September. It is unclear whether that facility will remain open to serve the only two families who made it.
Although the mayor’s announcement of the refugee program met with a wave of opposition and led to a series of packed public forums last spring and summer, the resettlement effort appears to have the support of a majority of Rutlanders. An informal sampling by the Observer of 50 people in downtown Rutland last summer, when the controversy was near its height, found residents favored resettlement by a 3-2 margin. A formal statewide poll conducted around that time by Vermont Public Radio and the Castleton Polling Institute also found 58 percent of Vermonters would welcome refugees in their home communities, while 27 percent would not.
Opponents of the resettlement effort organized the group Rutland First, which raised questions about whether the city could afford to the provide social services to the refugees. The group also strongly criticized the secrecy in which the mayor and officials of the statewide resettlement group formulated plans for the Rutland effort.
City election looms
In the wake of President Trump’s executive order, Rutland First activists were as pleased as Rutland Welcomes members were disappointed.
David Trapeni, a retired local businessman and member of Rutland First, said he hopes the president’s ban stays in effect and that Syrian refugees “don’t come over here.” He repeated the claim that refugees would burden the local social-service system, but he said that wasn’t his main concern.
“I’m more worried about the security concerns -- how they treat women and their own children,” Trapeni said. “You’ve got to be careful of the Sharia-law-loving monsters that may be among us.”
Trapeni, who lost a bid to unseat Louras in 2009, predicted the refugee issue would topple the incumbent in the March mayoral election.
“We’re putting all our efforts behind David Allaire for mayor,” Trapeni said.
Timothy Cook, a physician and Rutland First activist who has announced his candidacy for the Board of Aldermen, took a more moderate view.
“I wish them luck, and I’m happy to try to help in any way I can,” he said of the new Rutlanders. “If they need somebody to teach them some English, I’ll teach them some English. If they need medical care, I’ll give them medical care. That’s what Vermonters do.”
But in a statement announcing his candidacy on the Rutland First Facebook page, Cook challenged the claim that the refugees would spur economic growth.
“I do not share the opinion that meaningful economic development results from importing cheap labor by way of (albeit well-intended) humanitarianism,” he wrote.
In an e-mail interview, Cook said former President Barack Obama “overextended himself with respect to the refugee situation, and all Trump is doing is offering a course correction.”
“We as a nation have done enough already and need to be allowed to tend to [our] own problems first, fix our own economy first, before we re-engage and try to solve the rest of the world’s problems,” Cook said.
Allaire said in an e-mail interview that he thinks the local resettlement effort was too ambitious.
“I am not against Syrian refugees,” Allaire wrote. “What I am against is a program, this resettlement program, that was put together under the cover of darkness, with no input from the citizens and taxpayers of the city of Rutland, in numbers so great that I am very unsure in this city’s ability to sustain it.”
Berryhill, of Rutland Welcomes, said the next step for his group is unclear.
“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do to restart the program, but we are going to do everything we can,” he said.
Rutland Welcomes has amassed a vast store of donated household goods to help the refugees, and Berryhill said that if no more refugees arrive, the goods will be given to others in need. But he wasn’t ready to give up on the resettlement effort.
“We’re not going to put up with people who tell us we can’t take care of other people in need of help in the international community,” he said.
Schillinger, who hosted one of the Syrian families, described them as very grateful for the help.
“Every other minute, they’re saying ‘Thank you,’” Schillinger said. “I don’t know what they expected when they arrived, but I am confident that we have exceeded their expectations. ... They are seeing good, honest, hardworking, and generous people who are repeatedly willing to lend a helping hand. In their limited English, they say that Rutland and its residents are ‘very nice’ and ‘beautiful.’”