RUTLAND, VT— Greek-American Mayor Christopher Louras of Rutland, VT caused some controversy for his plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in the New England town.
Awaiting State Department approval, the plan would begin in October and gradually resettle the refugees in Rutland. Most of the residents are welcoming, after seeing the troubling images of the Syrians fleeing their war-torn country in search of a better life.
One of those welcoming the refugees is Jerry Dubeau, a 59-year-old resident who is in favor of the resettlement and said, “They have nowhere to live.That’s what this country is all about. We’re all from somewhere else.”
There are still others with reservations about the plan and anger that the details were kept quiet for months before the announcement of the plan. Many note the cultural differences as the basis for those reservations, though cultural diversity has long been a a strength for the United States.
Questions about the financial cost of the plan, and fears of terrorists possibly sneaking in amongst the refugees, are worrying for many residents. Months of discussion on the plan were only attended by the mayor, a few city and business leaders, and a nonprofit resettlement agency. Among those who knew about the plan was president of the Board of Aldermen, William Notte who only revealed the information to colleagues a day or so before Mayor Louras’ press conference on April 26. Notte said, “There was no benefit to anyone to spread the knowledge.”
Louras noted, if the proposal had been made public earlier, the debate would have been “about them,” and not on the logistical ability of Rutland to shelter the refugees. Louras said the timing was right for the announcement in the city of 16,500 people, 95 percent of whom are white and of European ancestry.
Addressing the controversy, Louras said “I own it. I took the hits, and I’ll continue to take the hits.” Giving the refugees a home here will put Rutland on the right side of history, both the mayor and Notte agreed.
“The benefits, economically and culturally, that we will recognize is exactly what the community needs at this time,” said Louras, the grandson of a Greek immigrant who fled the Ottoman Turks a century ago. “As much as I want to say it’s for compassionate reasons, I realize that there is not a vibrant, growing, successful community in the country right now that is not embracing new Americans.”
Louras addressed security concerns by noting the federal government’s thorough vetting process of refugees. He said, “I wouldn’t do this unless I knew and could speak with conviction that we are not putting the community at risk.”
The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit organization that has helped bring 8,000 refugees to Vermont since 1989, including families from Bosnia, Bhutan, Vietnam, and Somalia, is one of the agencies working with the State Department to resettle the Syrian refugees. The deadline for the federal review of the Rutland plan was May 20 with the decision possible some time in July.
Volunteers in Rutland are already gathering supplies and items to welcome the refugees.
A recent City Hall hearing was attended by twice as many supporters of the plan as opponents who continue to voice concerns. Louras said, “Those concerns are based in fear. When educated, those fears will be abated.”
He told Vermont Public Radio’s Nina Keck, “I’ve been accused of making a unilateral decision for the whole community, but I don’t buy into that. We don’t get to vote on who lives in our community. We don’t do that in Rutland, we don’t do that in the state of Vermont, and we certainly don’t do that in the United States of America.”