A conversation about welcoming refugees has returned to Rutland City.
Five years ago, plans to resettle 100 people from Syria spurred a deep divide in Rutland, but the first inkling of a plan to welcome people fleeing Afghanistan has received broad support — even from those who strongly opposed the previous plan in 2016.
“I want to make clear to everyone that I am supportive of this with everything I've heard up to this point,” Rutland Mayor David Allaire said at a Tuesday Board of Aldermen Meeting.
Allaire did not support the previous resettlement effort, and his overwhelming election in March 2017 was widely seen as a referendum on the issue. However, he invited Amila Merdzanovic, director of Vermont’s chapter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, to speak at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Merdzanovic gave Rutland officials an update about the status of Vermont’s application to receive refugees and said there are still many unknowns. Her organization has submitted a proposal to bring 4,000 Afghans to the country, 100 of whom would resettle in Vermont over the coming weeks and months.
Refugees likely would first be settled in Chittenden County, near the organization’s office in Colchester, Merdzanovic said, but “out of the 100 individuals, our hope is that some of those families will be placed in Rutland City or the Rutland area, in addition to other communities around the state.”
“At this point, it's not clear when people will start coming, but it's likely they will start coming very soon, in the next couple of weeks,” she said.
‘Fleeing for their lives’
Merdzanovic gave a brief overview of the situation overseas. Over the past 20 years of the war in Afghanistan, Afghans worked alongside American service members, serving as interpreters, guides, mechanics and more. They often risked their lives and the lives of their families through their allyship.
“Many of those individuals are now being targeted and are fleeing for their lives, and looking to the United States to fulfill its promise that we will offer protection and safety for those individuals who worked with our government,” she said.
After her presentation, many board members expressed support for the plan. Alderman Devon Neary pointed to recent data from the U.S. Census, which shows that Rutland lost more individuals than any other place in the state of Vermont in the past decade.
“We lost 688 folks, so honestly, this couldn't come at a better time,” he said, and encouraged Merdzanovic to look at Rutland as a “big partner, not just as a little partner.”
Alderman Tom DePoy was the only board member who appeared hesitant, asking whether the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants intended for the refugees to become “integrated or assimilated” into the community.
Later, in an interview with VTDigger, DePoy said he supports bringing refugees to Rutland as long as the city and other government agencies practice transparency. He said his main concern with the previous plan to resettle refugees was that city officials were working “behind closed doors.”
“There's nobody that's going to debate the fact that people from Afghanistan are going through hell right now,” DePoy said. “And certainly, those that were able to get out need to start new lives.”
Rutland still holds its designation for 2016 as a refugee resettlement community. Refugees would come under a humanitarian parole designation — which means they would receive only $1,225 of governmental assistance in the form of a one-time payment — and “will be subjected to all the necessary security screenings and medical screenings to make sure that they enter the United States fully vetted.”
The Committee for Refugees and Immigrants does not technically need permission from the city government to place refugees in Rutland, but “having community support is very important,” Merdzanovic said.
On Wednesday, the Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region sent a statement to the community expressing “full support” for resettling Afghan refugees in Rutland. The area desperately needs more people to join the local workforce, the statement said.
“Many of our family histories are a testament to the fact that new arrivals can succeed in the face of obstacles,” wrote Lyle Jepson, the organization’s executive director. “Provided with opportunity, refugees and immigrants have helped us become the strong nation and state that we are today. The upcoming planned growth of our community is merely the next logical step in our history of creating opportunity and prosperity for everyone.”
The Chamber pledged to connect new Vermonters with employers — and with training providers when necessary — and to work with state agencies and nonprofits to help connect arrivals to the community.
The public has yet to weigh in. Board President Matthew Whitcomb advised attendees that Merdzanovic would be taking only questions from board members at Tuesday’s meeting.
DePoy referred the topic of Afghan refugee resettlement to the Committee of the Whole Tuesday night “so that everybody can talk about it when issues come up,” he said.
In an interview, Merdzanovic said the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants considers Rutland a good spot for resettlement because housing vacancy rates are higher than in Chittenden County, public transportation and social services are available, and the community has organized to support refugee resettlement in the past.
Avoiding division through leadership
Republican Mayor Allaire joins Republican Gov. Phil Scott in welcoming refugees to Vermont.
Last spring, Scott sent a letter to the U.S. State Department, asking it to consider tripling the number of refugees sent to Vermont. As support for resettlement can sometimes split along political party lines, support from Republican leaders may assuage the same divide Rutland faced in 2016.
“It's really important for me to applaud and acknowledge Mayor Allaire’s leadership on this, and I really look to him and to the board for their continued support and guidance as we move forward,” Merdzanovic said.
However, DePoy’s questions to Merdzanovic about whether her organization will ensure that refugees will assimilate, rather than integrate into the community, raised the eyebrows of some other board members at Tuesday’s meeting. He raised the subject again in an interview with VTDigger.
“Assimilation means you come here to be an American and live under our cultural norms, our laws,” DePoy said. “You live as an American, not an Afghan American, not a European American, not an African American.”
At the meeting, Alderman Michael Talbott pushed back.
“I think the extent to which these Afghan allies are woven into the fabric of our community is not dependent upon an agency. It's been on us as community members. When they get here, show them that,” he said.
Merdzanovic told VTDigger that, in the ideal scenario, “newcomers and the existing majority groups adjust together.”
Assimilation, she said, suggests that people should abandon their culture and language, which she said is “neither realistic nor really appropriate to expect.”
“I am very proud of my Bosnian culture and my roots, and what I bring to the table, so to speak,” she said. “At the same time, I have adopted and embraced a lot of the American culture. It’s a beautiful blend.”
DePoy told VTDigger he wants “all the tools in place for this community to be able to help them create new lives and flourish.”
“We need that here,” he said.
Merdzanovic said she left Rutland on Tuesday night feeling encouraged and energized. Her office has been “inundated” with calls and emails from Vermonters who have offered housing, transportation and other support. She said she’s also received support from Rutland Welcomes and Bridge to Rutland, organizations that have aided refugees and asylum-seekers coming to the city.
“People are ready,” she said. “The enthusiasm is definitely there.”