Photo by Oliver Parini
Rutland Mayor Chris Louras announces plans to resettle up to 100 refugees at a press conference on Tuesday at City Hall in Rutland.
By Elsie Lynn Parini
In a first-in-the-state development, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras announced Tuesday that the city and greater Rutland area would welcome 100 refugees fleeing war and violence in Syria. The move, Louras said, meshes with Rutland’s plan to boost economic development and keeps true to Rutland’s history as a city that welcomes those seeking a new home.
“As a community whose forefathers, including my own grandfather, came here to escape poverty and persecution, we have a unique opportunity to repeat our storied history,” Mayor Louras said in a statement handed out at a press conference Tuesday morning in Rutland. “Just as our grandparents and great-grand parents were welcomed to Rutland in the late 1800s, early 1900s and during the World War II era, we will welcome new families facing peril.
“Their arrival will signal a new wave in the ongoing economic growth of the region,” Louras added. “As our forefathers’ arrival added to the rich cultural melting pot of Rutland County, our newest residents will enrich and expand the tapestry we cherish today.”
Surrounded by community leaders, press and students from Mount Saint Josephs Academy and Rutland High School, Louras acknowledged youth as the future, “and the future demands and deserves a rich culture in which to blossom.”
The city is working with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a field office based in Colchester of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, to serve as a new refugee resettlement site. Mayor Louras began conversations about welcoming Syrian refugees to Rutland back in mid-November.
Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program Director Amila Merdzanovic explained that a satellite office will open in Rutland to assist with the refugees’ transition to Vermont life.
“We’ll start with two and a half full-time employees at the Rutland office,” Merdzanovic said. Each refugee receives $925 from the federal government. That money is a one-time gift that is intended to get the person started: pay for the first month of rent, food, a bus pass and maybe, Merdzanovic added, a bed frame. “The focus is on early employment,” she stressed, adding that the resettlement program works closely with employers to help refugees find gainful employment.
In her years of experience resettling refugees, and as a refugee herself resettled from Bosnia 20 years ago, Merdzanovic finds “almost all adults are considered self-sufficient within eight months.”
Since 1989 the program has resettled about 8,000 refugees in Vermont, Merdzanovic said. None have come from Syria before.
Merdzanovic explained that most of the Syrian refugees will be coming from a refugee camp in Jordan, and many of them are in tact nuclear families. “They will face many of the same challenges other refugees have faced,” she said, citing language, culture and employment as the top obstacles. “We’re very lucky in Vermont,” Merdzanovic said after a question on racial discrimination was raised. “Despite all the rhetoric around the country we have only heard consistent support and a welcoming message here in Vermont.”
“I could not be more proud of Vermont and the Rutland community,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin after the announcement. “There is no denying that we are living in a time in America when fear mongering and bigotry are used by those in positions of power and influence to further their agendas. We saw it when more than 30 governors said they would ban refugees from their states. We saw it when North Carolina and Mississippi passed laws that discriminate against the LGBT community. And, unfortunately, we see it virtually every day on the Republican presidential campaign trail.
“As a state with a strong history of standing up for equality and common humanity, it is more important now than ever that we continue that proud tradition through our words and actions,” Shumlin continued. “Today, Rutland showed the rest of the country and the world that the values of respect for others, caring for those who need it most, and common decency are still alive and well in Vermont.”
The 100 refugees are expected to arrive as early as October and continue arriving for the next 12 months. According to Merdzanovic, it takes about 1,000 days per person to be processed, screened and cleared for immigration to the United States. The State Department has a rigorous security screening process, and Mayor Louras assured listeners: “The security measures in place will not put this community at risk.”
“These innocent people, including infants and toddlers, have been driven from their homes by the collapse of their nation,” said Louras, whose grandfather, Nicolaos Louras, immigrated to Rutland to escape persecution from the Ottoman Turks in 1906. “As Rutland welcomed my grandfather when he left the Greek island of Chios, we will welcome a new generation of Rutlanders facing the same kind of oppression and fear. These new residents seeking the American dream will bolster the economic growth taking place in Rutland and make us a stronger and better community.”
Board of Aldermen President William Notte echoed: “As someone whose family came to Rutland City as part of the great wave of Italian immigration I look forward to warmly welcoming these new arrivals, who will serve to make Rutland more culturally rich while joining us as one strong supportive community. My family has benefited immensely generation to generation from the opportunity to set down roots in Rutland and I feel it is incredibly important to pay back that privilege by paving the way for others to share in the American Dream.”
Dave Wolk, president of Castleton University, whose grandparents immigrated to Rutland to escape religious pogroms in Russia in 1897, added his support during the press conference. “We’re all immigrants… if you go back to the beginning, we’re all family… We will offer Syrian refugees the warm embrace of a loving family, and will help them pursue education, and wherever possible, include them in our family of employees… I am over the top impressed with the courage and vision of Chris Louras to lead us in this effort.”
Rutland Regional Medical Center President Tom Huebner also offered the prospect of jobs for refugees, as well as medical support for “all Americans, even the new ones.” Huebner’s father was born in Germany to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. His paternal grandparents, his father and uncle escaped Germany in May of 1939.
“They were welcomed and restarted their lives in the United States,” Huebner said. “My father and uncle both volunteered to be in the U.S. Army. My uncle lost his leg in the Battle of the Bulge. My father became an English and American History teacher and ultimately a high school principal. I am honored to support this program. I know what immigrants have brought to this country.”
Carol Tashie, a community leader and farmer, expressed her pride in Rutland. “As much as we will be helping these refugees, their presence will benefit the entire region by adding to the flavor and energy of our neighborhoods and stoking our economic engines. I’ve always known Rutland has a big heart and today we’re demonstrating our heart in a most remarkable way!”
Such support was deeply appreciated by Vermont’s Refugee Settlement Program.
“We are thrilled to be working with city and business leaders and the citizens of Rutland to develop plans for refugee resettlement,” Merdzanovic said. “I am so touched and inspired by the depth of compassion and overall support we have come across in Rutland.”