Refugee resettlement office set to open in Rutland

Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program

Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program Director Amila Merdzanovic, left, and Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, appear at a meeting in Rutland. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

RUTLAND — The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program’s Rutland office is expected to open and be fully staffed within a couple of weeks.

According to Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the office will have three full-time employees. Primary guidance will come from the Colchester office and will be based on the organization’s 35 years of experience working with refugees in Vermont.

“The program expects to welcome the first refugee families to Rutland in January,” Blake said in a news release. “We look forward to this opportunity to welcome those fleeing war and persecution who are unable to return to what was once home. We know when people’s lives have been disrupted, their ability to rebound is impressive, and we will work closely with the community to help refugees reclaim basic human rights and dignity and rebuild their lives.”

Mayor Chris Louras said the timing is as expected. “They have been consistent that the first families will arrive in January, and the community looks forward to welcoming our new neighbors,” he said.

In September, after months of debate, it was announced that Rutland had been selected as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Though many questions have been raised about the fate of the resettlement program in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president, the first families are still set to arrive later this month. During his campaign Trump said he would ban Syrian refugees from entering the United States.

“Sites across the country are continuing to welcome new arrivals as their travel from overseas is booked,” Blake said in an email. “We have no information regarding changes to the resettlement program.”

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, an affiliate of the federal committee on refugees, has been working closely with local volunteers and the group Rutland Welcomes to help coordinate services. Hunter Berryhill, a spokesperson for Rutland Welcomes, said attendance at recent volunteer orientations has exceeded expectations.

Volunteers are required to fill out an application and undergo a background check. Berryhill said the process was designed to make sure people were volunteering for the right reasons and to determine which skills are needed as refugees begin to arrive.

“VRRP has definitely been a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people in the community applying and attending orientations,” said Berryhill. Typically the Vermont refugee program expects to have about 20 to 25 people show up at training events, but more than 150 attended the first two orientations in November, Berryhill said.

Though Rutland Welcomes has been following VRRP’s lead, the group continues to organize donation drives and has filled three storage spaces with everything from nonperishable food and winter clothing to dressers and bed frames.

“We’re moving forward,” said Berryhill, who acknowledged uncertainty surrounding the program’s future.

“We have families coming, and there’s nothing that can stop that,” he said. “But who knows what’s going to happen.”

Adam Federman

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