RUTLAND — Former Mayor Christopher Louras said as more Syrian refugees arrive in Rutland as part of a resettlement program, more people will see the human side of the initiative.
“For a full year I was the face of refugee resettlement here in the city of Rutland. I was proud to be that face,” Louras told a crowd of more than 400 people Tuesday night at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland for an event marking World Refugee Day.
“But, as I always understood and most of you understand,” he added, “refugee resettlement can only be fully humanized and normalized when the true faces of refugee resettlement are among us.”
The event Tuesday night, co-hosted by Amnesty International and Rutland Welcomes, featured a screening of the film “8 Borders, 8 Days.” The film follows a Syrian single mother and her two young children after they leave Syria to their eventual arrival in Berlin, Germany. The journey included a treacherous trip on an overcrowded raft and chaotic and frenzied border crossings.
Amanda Bailly, the film’s director, attended the event Tuesday night. She is originally from Albany, New York, and has been living in Beirut the past two years.
“This film,” Bailly said, “is very important to us to use as a tool where refugees are being resettled to bring the community together and say, ‘How can we change the course of the lives of the people who are going to be our new neighbors and how we can welcome them in the best way possible?’”
Louras has said he believes his support of the refugee resettlement program cost him his election to a sixth two-year term in office. David Allaire, who had been a long-time city alderman, beat Louras in a four-person mayoral election in March, with 51 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Louras.
Allaire campaigned on opposing the plan for resettlement. He said the process needed more transparency and input from the public.
Louras’ announcement in April 2016 of the refugee resettlement initiative in Rutland led to heated debate in the city. One group, Rutland Welcomes, formed to support the effort, and another, Rutland First, opposed it.
Criticism was leveled at Louras for not informing the Board of Aldermen and the public about the proposal earlier, when planning had already been underway for months.
The U.S. State Department eventually did select the city as a Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement site in September, with 100 families expected to arrive this year. However, after two Syrian families made it to Rutland, the program was put on hold by executive orders issued by President Donald Trump. Those orders now are tied up in court.
Another Syrian family did arrive in the city in recent weeks. The three Syrian families now in the city total 14 refugees, including eight children.
“This has been an interesting year to say the least,” said Amila Merdzanovic, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program director. “It’s been incredibly hard to plan since the new (presidential) administration took over.”
She said eight additional families have been cleared to be resettled in the city. Their arrival date is uncertain, Merdzanovic said, with her organization only receiving a week or two notice.
Merdzanovic spoke Tuesday night during a panel discussion following the screening of the film.
The panel, moderated by David Moats, editorial page editor at the Rutland Herald, also included Bailly, Alderman William Notte, Hunter Berryhill of Rutland Welcomes, and Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee and activist who now lives in New York.
Berryhill talked of the formation of the volunteer-run Rutland Welcomes group and how it works to lend assistance to new refugees arriving in the city.
Notte said simple exposure to the newcomers may ease the minds of people with misgivings about the resettlement program.
“The more opportunities that children who just got here have to play with children who were born here,” Notte said, “the better this community is going to be, the more accepting this community is going to be.”
Mustafa offered those in the crowd some advice on how to welcome refugees arriving in the city.
“What we are always looking for is a safe environment and a place that we can go to sleep in peace,” she said. “You just have to offer your heart.”