Officials in Rutland say the city will take in 100 Syrian refugees beginning in October. Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras said he’s been working closely with state and federal refugee agencies to create Vermont’s first relocation community for Syrians.
The refugee announcement was made at a packed City Hall press conference Tuesday.
The mayor began by talking about how his grandfather fled Greece in 1906 to escape the Ottomon Turks.
“He joined countless southern and eastern Europeans from Sicily, Italy, Poland, Russia, who were also fleeing persecution and were looking to rebuild their lives," said Louras.
Louras said Rutland provided a safe haven for his family and he believes it could provide a similar fresh start for those fleeing war-torn Syria.
“This community is at a time in its history when we must seize the opportunity to welcome the next generation of new Americans escaping a desperate situation of war and chaos,” said Louras. “People who, like 100 years ago, will grow our population, our economy and most importantly provide the cultural enrichment that we so desperately need.”
Amila Merdzanovic is the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Merdzanovic said Rutland will be a good fit for the Syrians since jobs and housing are readily available and school officials are eager to help.
While federal funding will provide the money to help the Syrians get settled, Merdzanovic says refugees in general are very motivated. In fact she noted that 85 percent of all employable adults are self-sufficient within eight months of resettlement. She says her organization will open an office in Rutland to provide additional support.
Merdzanovic and Mayor Louras acknowledged that some people may be concerned about refugees having possible links to terrorist organizations.
But both say the extensive screening refugees go through should put those fears to rest.
“It takes about 1,000 days to process a single individual,” said Merdzanovic. “And they’re subjected to interviews, finger printing, medical screenings and finally, after 1,000 days, our federal government offers possible resettlement.”
“Do not give in to your fears,” stressed the Mayor. “The fact is that the security measures in place will not put this community at risk,” he added.
Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, agrees. She says accepting refugees has become highly politicized in the U.S., but she says the fears are not based on reality.
“There has never been a terrorist incident in the United States conducted by a resettled refugee of any description,” she said.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, millions have had to flee the country. Newland says about 3,000 have resettled in the United States, though none are in Vermont yet.
Gil Nell, a retiree from Rutland, was picking up a book at the library. He says he’s proud Rutland will be home to the first. “There’s the obvious concerns about who might be with them, but you have to go beyond that,” said Nell. “The good will always outweigh the bad. You've got to go on that.”
Randall Smathers, assistant librarian at the Rutland Free Library, says he was born in Canada but has become a naturalized citizen.
“Canada recently started bringing in refugees, and watching it across the border I was wondering why Canada can do it and we can’t. And I thought it was overdue," Smathers said. "I think it’s a great thing.”
But Smathers admits when you have a community that doesn’t speak the language and has such a different cultural background, there will obviously be problems. But he says Rutland is an immigrant community.
“We have a large and proud Polish community, we have a large and proud Italian community - we have two Italian American clubs in the city, the Irish as well.”
Adds Smathers: “I think it’s something that we should be able to deal with and something we need to deal with. I think it’s a challenge and I’m looking forward to helping these people."