Since the early 1980s, Vermont has welcomed more than 7,000 refugees fleeing humanitarian crises in their home countries. On Tuesday, some of the newest arrivals got a special visit from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who used their English class as the backdrop for his latest volley in the battle over immigration policy.
Ode Mbilizi, a refugee from Congo, was one of several English students who seized their moment to make small talk with Vermont’s highest office holder Tuesday morning. Mbilizi arrived in Burlington three months ago, and has already secured housing and a job, at the Skinny Pancake restaurant.
He shared his story briefly with Shumlin after the governor dropped in on this classroom in the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington to deliver some holiday tidings.
“So I wanted to come as your governor, at a time when I know that refugees all over America are wondering whether or not they are welcome, to say, ‘Happy Thanksgiving, we are thankful you are Vermonters, and we look forward to welcoming more refugees who are leaving horrid, horrid circumstances to come to this promised land,” Shumlin said.
The politics of immigration has roiled the electoral landscape in recent days. Republicans and Democrats have split on the question of whether, and how, to bring Syrian refugees to the United States.
Here in Vermont, the state’s two Democratic gubernatorial candidates – Matt Dunne and Sue Minter – have embraced unequivocally plans to resettle displaced Syrians in Vermont.
The two Republican candidates, Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman, are calling for more scrutiny of federal resettlement policy before opening Vermont’s doors to Syrian refugees.
Shumlin says the two-year vetting process, which involves numerous layers of security checks, including an in-person interview with the Department of Homeland Security, is rigorous.
“We should fear terrorism,” Shumlin said. “But when we have a process that works, and the refugee process works, let’s not pick on those who are fleeing from the terrorists, who have been tortured and killed by the terrorists.”
As the battle over immigration policy rages, Vermont is quietly preparing to welcome Syrian refugees in the near future.
Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, says her organization is preparing to resettle an unknown number of Syrian refugees that could arrive before next October.
Vermont takes in about 350 refugees annually, according to Merdzanovic. The latest arrivals hail from Bhutan, Iraq, Burma, Somalia and Congo.
More than half the nation’s governors have now called either for a pause in allowing Syrian refugees entry to the U.S., or have opposed their resettlement altogether. Merdzanovic says it’s an unsettling message for her clients.
“I was once in their shoes and I can’t imagine it’s making them feel good,” Merdzanovic says. “But at the same time, the message they’re hearing from our governor is very optimistic.”
Merdzanovic says steps are underway to resettle an unknown number of Syrian refugees in Vermont. She says they could arrive in the next year.