By Stephen Seitz
RUTLAND — A number of unfounded beliefs about Syrian refugees have made their way into the discussion over whether to allow 20-30 families to relocate to Rutland.
Stacie Blake, the director of communications for government and community relations for the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, of which the Vermont refugee program is a part, said she knew there would be concerns. She also said plenty of people don’t understand the refugees’ plight. “We proposed Rutland to the State Department early in June,” Blake said. “There’s a common misperception based on what we see on refugees in Europe. Refugees are people just like you and I, but they had to flee their country. When they’ve come to Vermont, they’ve been welcomed by Vermonters. Resettlement is nothing new.”
According to the European Commission on Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, the Syrian civil war has triggered the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. More than 9 million Syrians have been displaced, or roughly the population of New York City. Only 2,234 have been admitted into the United States, according to the State Department.
“Refugees are not terrorists… Many refugees are victims of terrorists,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the State Department.
The Department said widespread beliefs that 70 percent of the refugees are young Syrian men and that 250,000 Syrians are coming in soon are false.
“Last fiscal year, 1,682 Syrian refugees were admitted,” the Department said. “Roughly 77 percent of them were women and children. Only 23 percent were adult men.”
Nor is the door open to just anybody, the Department said. There is a thorough system for clearing the potential resettlers, including “a rigorous security screening involving multiple federal intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies, such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense, in order to ensure that those admitted are not known to pose a threat to our country. The safeguards include biometric (fingerprint) and biographic checks, and an interview by specially trained DHS officers who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present any security concerns to the United States. Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through an enhanced level of review.”
Blake said taking in refugees has always been a part of American tradition.
“We have a long immigrant history going back to our roots,” she said. “The only thing different about these refugees is where they’re from.”
Earlier this year, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras contacted the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and offered Rutland as a haven for the refugees, but did not consult the Board of Aldermen before going ahead, and this has led to considerable controversy in the city, as well as in surrounding towns. The Mayor has stated many times that he does not think that it appropriate for the public to vote on who their neighbors are or where they come from.
But an ad hoc group calling itself Rutland First has been a vocal dissenter of Louras’s position. The group sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State asking the Department to delay plans for resettling 100 Syrian refugees in the city.
Headed by Dr. Timothy Cook, the letter paints Rutland as an economically depressed, drug-ridden city overrun by criminals.
“We understand the refugee situation is a very serious humanitarian crisis,” Cook wrote. “However, relocating people to a rural community such as Rutland with its own very serious economic deficits and its grave social challenges may not be prudent.”
Cook listed “high levels of public assistance, low wages, high tax rates, housing challenges, substance abuse and very little capacity in social programs” as reasons to reconsider the settlement. He also raised serious concerns over Syrian refugees coming over with tuberculosis. Even while admitting that there is a very low chance (close to zero) that the refugee population would spread active TB, or any other disease, to Rutland residents he asked ,“why take that chance.”
Another group supporting the refugee resettlement, calling itself Rutland Welcomes, has worked to spread facts about refugee resettlement and to dispel such fears that they see as common scare tactics aimed intentionally to prevent resettlement of refugees in need.