hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2016


Refugee plan gets green light in Rutland

City leaders call for unity after divisive debate


Contributing writer


It’s official: The refugees will be coming to Rutland.

The U.S. State Department has approved a plan to resettle about 100 refugees from Syria and Iraq in the city over the next 12 months. The decision was announced Sept. 28 by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a private refugee-aid organization that had worked closely with Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras in developing its proposal to administer the resettlement.
The first refugees are expected to reach the city around the end of the year.

The federal decision effectively renders moot what had become a bitter debate within the city over the refugee issue. Prominent figures on both sides predicted the ruling would open the door to reconciliation between supporters and critics of the resettlement plan, which was developed in near secrecy and consequently caught most people off-guard when Louras announced it late April.

The debate over Rutland’s welcoming – or refusing – refugees from the Middle East has drawn national attention as the city has sought find a balance between those who fear the refugees might create an economic burden or a risk of terrorism, on the one hand, and those who seek to uphold the nation’s tradition of welcoming the “huddled masses,” enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

In the final days of September, some critics of the refugee plan didn’t sound quite ready to reconcile. Ann Corcoran, the editor of the anti-resettlement Web site refugeeresettlementwatch.com, for example, headlined her story on the State Department decision, “U.S. State Department shoving refugees down their throats in Rutland, VT.”
But among many people in Rutland, it appears the newcomers will be well received. Public-opinion surveys suggest Rutlanders favor the resettlement plan about margin of about 3-to-2, and hundreds of volunteers have organized through the community group Rutland Welcomes to help the refugees get their footing when they arrive.


Humanitarian crisis
The Rutland resettlement plan represents a tiny part of an international effort to cope with a wave of more than 5 million people who have fled the ongoing civil war in Syria. Many of these refugees have wound up in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, but hundreds of thousands have made the treacherous crossing to Europe by boat. President Obama pledged last year to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States.

Amila Merdzanovic, the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, predicted in an e-mailed statement that the refugees will be welcomed and will thrive in Rutland.
“We were very happy to receive the news that Rutland has been approved by the Department of State as a refugee resettlement site, joining over 350 other sites across the nation,” Merdzanovic wrote. “From the beginning, we believed that welcome and opportunity would greet newcomers to Rutland, just as it has for the many different immigrants who have started new lives in Rutland throughout history.”

But many critics are still sore about the secrecy with which Louras, Merdzanovic’s program and its parent organization, the Virginia-based U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, handled plans for the refugees’ placement.

Dave O’Brien, a former executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp. who took a prominent role in opposing the plan, said Louras, Merdzanovic’s organization, the state’s congressional delegation and the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin “were all very busily making sure that no one knew what they were doing.”

“My real issue is that I was never pleased with the manner in which the mayor conducted himself, or how this was done in such secrecy, in purposefully deceptive ways,” O’Brien said.
The mayor “didn’t once, once, reach out to our group,” he said, referring to Rutland First, the local group that organized opposition to the resettlement plan.

Opponents argued the resettlement program would impose new costs on the city’s taxpayers while shifting resources away from the social-service needs of the city’s current residents. Resettlement supporters, on the other hand, emphasized the humanitarian need and the cultural diversity the newcomers would bring to the city.


Political fallout
The mayor’s handling of the refugee program likely will provide grist for the political mill for some time. Retired businessman David Trapeni, one of the more outspoken members of Rutland First, said Louras had “conspired” with the State Department to bring the refugees to Rutland. (Louras did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the charge.)

Trapeni, a retired businessman whom Louras defeated handily in the 2007 mayoral election, also charged that the mayor had “openly lied that he wasn’t going to use any city funds” for the refugee program. The claim that the refugees will be a burden on city taxpayers has been echoed by city Treasurer Wendy Wilton, who has asserted that the refugees’ arrival could lead to a massive increase in city property taxes.

Louras, though, is holding to his view that the refugee resettlement won’t cost the city money and actually might yield long-term economic benefits. In an e-mail, he said he is currently drafting his budget for the 2018 fiscal year – to be presented to city aldermen on Nov. 1. The budget, Louras wrote, includes “zero (no, none, 0) $$ for resettlement.”

The State Department provides $2,025 per refugee to the responsible resettlement agency, in this case the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. From this sum, each refugee will receive “welcome money” of $925 to $1,125 upon arrival for immediate cash expenses, Merdzanovic said. The remainder will be used for the resettlement program’s administrative functions.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement provides refugees with additional funding, for social services and direct cash assistance, for up to eight months after arrival. A statement posted Sept. 28 on the Web site of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced that the federal agency “has awarded Vermont a $150,000 grant to help the newly resettled refugees obtain employment and achieve self-sufficiency.” Welch’s office did not immediately respond to a request to clarify whether these funds are specifically for the Rutland resettlement program or for other Vermont refugee-hosting efforts as well.


Healing divisions
Although many who questioned or opposed the resettlement program remain critical of the mayor, prominent opponents said they do not expect the refugees to face any active protests or harassment when they arrive.

“I don’t anticipate that happening,” Trapeni said.
O’Brien likewise cast the city’s debate over the issue as one in which the actual refugees themselves were blameless.

“At the end of the day, I surely, surely hope that the folks coming to our community are successful ... in being happy and healthy and good neighbors,” O’Brien said. “We have no hatred in our heart.”

Asked what Rutland First would be doing next, he said, “Probably not much. I think we’ll probably take back the time we’ve lost with our families.”

He added that he expects some Rutland First members will work toward “finding ways to make this a success.”

Alderman Ed Larson said he wasn’t surprised by the State Department decision, and he suggested the Board of Aldermen’s previous reluctance to embrace the resettlement program was a dispute about process rather than results.

“I don’t think any member of the Board of Aldermen is opposed to the refugee resettlement,” Larson said. “If the secrecy hadn’t been there, it would have been probably a much easier track for everyone to follow.

“The issue now is to heal the divisiveness in the community so we can go forward,” he continued. “I’ve never seen this community so polarized on one issue, and now it’s time for the two sides to come together. And I think that will happen.”

Rutland Welcomes activist Marsha Cassel said the volunteers in her organization are continuing their efforts to prepare for the refugees.

“We want to be sensitive that there are still people who have concerns,” Cassel said. “We’re hoping to move forward in a way that works to alleviate those concerns, to assure that Rutland is a safe welcoming community for our new neighbors -- and for our existing neighbors.”