A turbulent, war torn journey that’s spanned several years and thousands of miles ended Wednesday in Vermont for one Syrian refugee family. A second family is due to arrive Thursday.
They are the first of approximately 25 families expected to resettle in Rutland this year, and their arrival marks the culmination of months of work, hope and controversy.
Originally, the two Syrian families were supposed to fly separately from Istanbul, Turkey but arrive in Burlington on the same day. But plans changed, with one family arriving a day before the other.
Amila Merdzonovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, says last-minute changes are common for refugee families.
She would not provide any details of where the families are from in Syria, where in Turkey they’ve been living or what U.S. city the first family flew into.
She says both families chose not to speak to reporters and she asked local media to be sensitive.
“We really want to respect their privacy,” says Merdzonovic. "The privacy and security of these families are our first priorities. And we want to give them time to settle, to see where they are, to wrap their heads around that they’re here, and they’re safe and that life will resume.”
Merdzonovic says the first family was met upon arrival in the U.S. Wednesday by staff from the International Organization for Migration, an affiliate of the United Nations.
The family was then driven to Rutland, where they were met by Merdzanovic and her staff as well as several volunteers from Rutland Welcomes, a group that’s been working to support resettlement.
Merdzanovic says both Syrian families will be living temporarily with host families in Rutland, which she did not identify.
A refugee herself from Bosnia, Merdzonovic says she can well imagine what the trip to Vermont has been like for the families.
“That moment of arrival when you plant your feet on the U.S. soil is one of the most memorable events in a refugee life and in this journey," she says. “I still remember my arrival 21 years ago. I was exhausted, two days of travel, having left my family and home and all of that."
Related: VPR is going to Jordan. What do you want to know about the refugee experience? Learn more about our trip, and share your question below.
“But that night, that image is so vivid in my mind. I think it will stay with me for the rest of my life. Finally you see the light," Merdzanovic says. "You’re here, there’s hope, there’s future for you.”
She looks up and smiles. “I’m sure it’ll be the same for these families.”
Each family member, including children, receives a one-time federal payment of $925 when they arrive in the U.S. It’s money they don’t have to pay back that’s used for security deposits, rent, utilities and other startup costs.
Refugees are expected to repay the U.S. government for the cost of their airline tickets to the U.S. That’s not to be punitive, State Department officials say, but to help refugees establish a credit history.
Merdzonvic says for the next 30 to 90 days, the families will be incredibly busy working with her staff in Rutland to look for and move into an apartment, apply for services, get Social Security cards, undergo medical screenings and help their children register for school.
“We will orient them to the community,” Merdzonvic explains, “connect them with other volunteers and family friends.”
With the adults, Merdzonvic continues, "we will look to develop what’s called a family self-sufficiency plan and start working on getting them employed.”
Marsha Cassel, a local teacher, is a volunteer with Rutland Welcomes, and has been meeting monthly collecting and organizing donated goods for the Syrians.
“It feels so great to know they’re actually here, that it's begun," she says excitedly. Then she begins to tear up.
"It's hard not to be emotional, because it’s real. They’re no longer numbers. Now they’re going to be moms and dads and kids and faces, and new neighbors,” she says. “So, yeah, it’s really, really cool. And it's important."
Over the past several months, Cassel and more than a 100 other volunteers have been preparing for the refugees in all sorts of ways.
Last week, some began washing donated towels, sheets, blankets and winter jackets.
Sorting through a bag of baby clothes, Erin Robbason, a volunteer from West Rutland, smiled at the thought of finally being able to deliver some of the donated items.
“It’s a little bit surreal to me,” she says, laughing. “It’s just been so long in the making. It’s like Christmas, very exciting.”
She reaches for a bag of snow pants to see if they need to be washed.
“For me, I can’t imagine what these families have gone through to get here. So to be able to come here tonight and sort clothing and do laundry,” she says, pointing to the various bags, “to do something that’s relatively easy for me to do, it’s just nice to be able to help.”
Rutland Welcomes formed last spring, not long after Mayor Christopher Louras announced his intention to welcome Syrian refugees to the city.
At the same time, Rutland First, a group opposed to resettlement, also gained momentum.
Their members worried about the cost of taking in refugees and how well the newcomers would be vetted for links to terrorism.
Some questioned how Syrian and Iraqi Muslims would assimilate in a small, predominantly white town like Rutland.
But Timothy Cook, a Rutland physician and one of the founders of Rutland First, says there are no plans to protest the refugees arrival. And he says he plans to volunteer medical services to them if needed.
“We made the determination that we’re trying to block this for fiscal reasons. But we also decided at the same time, the core group that I’m familiar with, that if these people come here we’re going to do everything we can to help them succeed," he says. "Because that’s what Vermonters do.”
Rutland resident Matt Howland says he and others are still upset that the mayor didn’t get prior approval on resettlement from the Board of Aldermen or local residents.
“There’s still a great divide out there, and there are still too many unanswered questions," Howland says. But, he says, "we’re a great community, and I think eventually the people that are polarized will get over it and get past it. How long will that be, and when’s that going to be, I don’t know.”
Cook and Howland both say they’d welcome a slowdown or even a halt to refugees entering the country if the Trump administration calls for one.
If that doesn’t happen, Howland says he’ll be watching the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program closely to make sure they don’t leave locals holding the bag for the new families.
“There is no local oversight to this program. Once they send people here they can just keep sending them. So I think if we can hold them accountable, get a little bit of local control, I think that would be a win for us," he says.
Patricia Alonso, a local teacher, understands the fears and concerns of some in the city. But she says too many young people are moving away in search of larger more diverse cities. “We need this; we need change. We’re a global society now not just shut in between Killington and New York.”
Her own family fled Cuba as political refugees and she has no doubt the newcomers will do fine in Rutland.
And she says she’s thrilled at all the attention they’re bringing to the city.
“I have friends of mine in Spain send me information from El País, which is kind of like the New York Times of Madrid, that we made the newspaper there,” says Alonso, visibly impressed. “We need to get on the map — we need to be known for something other than [being] a community that is lacking.”
Alonso’s crossing her fingers that providing a warm welcome to refugees in need may do that.
Correction 9:55 a.m. An earlier version of this story misspelled Patricia Alonso's name.