By Adam Federman, VTDigger
RUTLAND — The first of up to 100 Syrian refugees expected to make Rutland their new home have arrived.
One family arrived in the city Wednesday, Jan. 18, and the second was expected to enter the country later Thursday, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
“It is perhaps the most important moment of this work,” said the committee’s Stacie Blake, referring to the meeting with refugees as they entered the United States. Blake said the first arrivals are coming through JFK International Airport in New York and then receiving ground transport to Rutland, where they will stay with host families for the first couple of days.
The committee for refugees would not provide additional information about the families. The Worldwide Admissions Processing System website, which contains State Department data on refugee admissions going back to 2002, indicates that nine Syrian refugees have been settled in Vermont this week. Rutland is the only site in Vermont slated to resettle Syrian refugee families this year, Blake said.
Mayor Chris Louras said he met the family Wednesday night. According to Louras, the mother has a degree in French literature and has written children’s books. The father, Louras said, told him he hadn’t slept in two days but commented on the mountains.
“He wanted to communicate in English” despite having a limited grasp of the language, Louras said. “And I think it demonstrates what we know about refugees in general. They have a drive to succeed in a new culture and understand that the most effective way to integrate into a new culture is to work on the language.”
Hunter Berryhill, a spokesperson for the group Rutland Welcomes, said the feeling among members was one of jubilation. “All of our hard work and planning is now actually being put forward to helping people,” he said.
The mayor also expressed a sense of joy but said this marked the beginning of a new phase.
“This isn’t the end,” he said. “This is really the start. We’ll be welcoming 23 or so more families between now and the end of September.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said officials “are pleased to see the local community working together to ensure that the first families to arrive in this small town are warmly received and helped to assimilate into their new home.” The department works with more than 180 communities around the country, including Rutland.
Many other states have also received refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, which has led to hundreds of thousands of casualties and displaced people over the past six years. According to the admissions processing website, so far this year Connecticut has taken in 25 Syrian refugees; Massachusetts, 11; and Florida, 71.
As of Jan. 2, Canada had resettled nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees, according to a government website.
Refugee resettlement produced some controversy in Rutland. Nearly nine months ago Louras announced that Rutland was being considered as a resettlement site for Syrian refugees, setting off an acrimonious debate within the community over how the decision was made and whether the city would be prepared. In September the State Department selected Rutland as a resettlement site, and the public debate largely came to an end.
However, the Board of Aldermen has continued to seek information from the State Department about how the number of refugees resettled in any given community is determined. In addition, the issue of refugee resettlement is still playing in local politics, with the mayor and several members of the Board of Aldermen up for re-election in March.
Board member Dave Allaire, who announced a run for mayor in late December, said he’s willing to do his part to help refugees assimilate into the community. “I’m all in that part of it,” he said. However, he said he was concerned that he’d learned of the first arrivals through a Facebook post Thursday morning.
“I’ve had absolutely no heads up as a member of the legislative body of the city,” he said. “No information coming from USCRI or (the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program) or anyone about something that’s, I think, a big event in the city. So that’s very unfortunate.”
Board President William Notte said he also learned of the arrivals in the media Thursday morning but that he didn’t think the board needed to be apprised of every arrival. He said board members who want to be involved in the welcoming process are free to do so outside of the confines of City Hall.
“We’re talking about one family that’s been through hell,” Notte said. “I don’t wish to put a bull’s-eye around the first family that gets here and make a terribly large deal about their arrival.”
Castleton University has been part of the preparations, sponsoring a class for local educators and social service providers helping them prepare to work with refugees.
University President Dave Wolk said he was ready to welcome the first families to the community and hoped to have them over to dinner before the end of the month. Wolk said the university had also sponsored an exhibit of Syrian artwork and film screenings on the civil war.
“It fits in with who we are and who we aspire to be,” Wolk said.
According to Blake, it’s always a relief when the first families arrive safely in the country.
“I think we have obviously always had faith that this was a good location for refugees to start their new lives, so we’re happy to see all of this planning and preparation by volunteers come to fruition,” she said “What we know about refugees in general is they have a drive to succeed in a new culture and understand that the most effective way to integrate into a new culture is to work on the language.”
For more information on how to get involved helping refugees in Rutland, visit rutlandwelcomes.org.
Photo by Polly Mikula
Rutland Welcomes signs hang in area businesses.