For A Syrian Family In Rutland, Refugee Debate Hits Close To Home

Jul 22, 2016

Efforts to create a new refugee resettlement community in Rutland have stirred up passionate debate. While many want to welcome Syrians into the city, others fear Muslim refugees won’t assimilate, will become a threat or burden taxpayers.

For a Syrian couple who are raising their children in Rutland this debate has hit especially close to home.

Mike is a real estate agent in Rutland who’s lived in the city for 16 years. His wife, Laila, came to the city six years ago.

The couple asked VPR not to use their last name for this story and they didn’t want their photos taken.

The debate over refugees has made being Syrian in Rutland a lot more complicated, they admitted.

Sitting in their living room, their young daughters Sila and Tala play quietly on the floor. The whir of an air conditioner provides welcome relief to the 90-degree day. 

“I’m Kurdish. We’re both Kurdish,” Laila says of her and her husband. “We are, both of us, from Allepo. We live in town called Afrin,” she explains.

Afrin and the much larger city of Allepo are in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. 

Mike, who is 53, came to the United States in 1981 to study civil engineering at Northeastern University. He worked in Boston and California before settling in Rutland in 2000. He believes people in Rutland who are concerned that Syrian refugees will be uneducated or illiterate, are misinformed.

“People in our area, and the people I grew up with, I would say probably 90 percent literacy, they are 90 percent educated,” he says. “Everybody, just like here, and maybe sometimes a bit more, they concentrate on school."

“It’s very hard to make it over there,” Mike explains. “If you’re not really studying hard to open your future for you. It’s not like this country ... where we have opportunities, everybody have opportunities.”

Laila, who’s 37, nods. She earned a civil engineering degree in Syria and was working for the national railroad when family friends introduced her to Mike.

"When I think, I am a Syrian and I'm moving for new life and I have to learn the language, I have to know about these people, the culture, the system everything." — Laila, a Syrian-born American who's lived in Rutland for six years

Laila doesn’t wear a hijab or cover her head. She says in Syria women are free to dress how they want to and many women are highly educated.

Nonetheless, the transition from Syria to Vermont was hard for her.

“I just cannot describe it,” she says with a sigh. "It’s another world for me. When I think, I’m a Syrian and I’m moving for new life, I have to learn the language, I have to know about these people, the culture, the system, everything.”

Language was the biggest hurdle. She took classes at an adult learning center and eventually began teaching Arabic at Castleton University. She says chatting with her students helped her English improve dramatically.

Mike gets up to give daughters, Tala and Sila, a snack. The girls, who are 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years old, speak Kurdish and English and are learning Arabic as well.

The family’s split level home is modern, spacious and immaculate. An American flag hangs outside the front door and Mike explains he became a U-S Citizen in 1987, while Laila became an American in 2015.

Customers shop on a recent Saturday morning at the Rutland Farmer's Market. This stall shows its support for Syrian Refugees with signs that read "Rutland Welcomes."
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Laila says people in Rutland have been incredibly kind and friendly, something she admits she wasn’t used to in the large cities back home.

“That’s is why I say, 'Thanks God I came to this small town, not big city.' Maybe I get lost in that big city,” she laughs. “Rutland, it was good for me to see the smiles.”

She says strangers would say hi to her on the street and smile. She asked her husband why people would do that.

“Mike explain for people in Rutland, they’re different from big cities. I’m Muslim, I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, whatever, and they just smile for me and this makes me happy.”

"Where I grew up, our house is gone, we don't have any house now, it's bomb[ed] and stole[n.] So all my families they have to start from scratch." — Laila, on what is left behind in Syria

Laila grows more serious when she talks about Syria and the toll the war there has taken.

“I just can’t believe it,” she says shaking her head. “Where I grew up, our house is gone, we don’t have any house now, it’s bomb[ed] and stole[n.] So all my families they have to start from scratch,” she says sadly.

Her three brothers escaped to the Kurdistan region of Iraq; her parents fled to Turkey. She has a sister in Egypt and another who is a refugee in Germany.

Has the debate over Syrian refugees coming to Rutland changed their view of the city?

“No, not whatsoever,” says Mike. “I laugh at it sometimes,” he admits. But, “I get the point that some people are surprised or maybe even opposing for these refugees to come over here, because they just don’t know who these people are. They don’t know where they’re coming from. All I can tell them, all I can say is they are just human beings,” says Mike. "They are running away. I just cannot imagine right now if I lost everything what would I do.”

“They just looking for a new life for their kids,” says Laila looking at her youngest daughter who begins whining to be picked up.  Smiling, she scoops up her daughter into a tight hug.

"All I can tell [those opposing the resettlement], all I can say is, they are just human beings. They are running away. I just cannot imagine right now if I lost everything, what would I do.” — Mike, a Syrian-born American who moved to Rutland in 2000

Laila admits she misses her extended family and the meals they used to share back in Syria. And she says Muslim holidays feel different in Rutland with so few others to celebrate with. But she looks around her spacious kitchen, at Mike and her daughters and smiles. “Home is here now. This is our home, this is our family. This is home.”

While America has become home, and they both love the mountains and small town charm of Rutland, Mike and Laila admit they are planning to leave the city for Florida. The move is partly for Mike’s real estate business and partly because they want more diversity and culture for their daughters.

When they heard Syrian families might be coming to Rutland, they postponed the move believing they could help. The two say they hope they still can.