Rutland 'rose to the top' in discussions on Syrian refugees

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MONTPELIER — Rutland was one of a number of Vermont communities that offered to host Syrian refugees in the weeks and months to come, said the official who oversees refugee resettlement in the state.

Amila Merdzanovic, the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, said she and others held extensive meetings with representatives of those communities.

"Rutland really rose to the top," she said.

The proposal to bring the Syrians to Rutland has not been given final approval by the federal government, although state refugee officials do not expect a problem.

The United States is in the process of resettling 10,000 Syrians before the end of the fiscal year, although only a fraction of the total have arrived so far, State Department statistics show. The 100 that would be resettled in Rutland beginning in October would be counted toward the 2017 goal. The State Department is now seeking public comment on how many refugees should be accepted from around the world in 2017.

Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras said he conceived of the idea of offering homes to Syrian refugees in November. Since then, he and others have been working with the Resettlement Program and others to ensure that there are adequate housing, jobs and education, and that any refugees brought to Rutland are properly screened.

Rutland officials presented their plan to host Syrian refugees as a way to build on the city's history as a melting pot, to provide homes to people fleeing violence, and to give the community a boost in its effort to rebuild its once-vibrant economy and overcome its reputation as a city hard hit by heroin.

Rutland Treasurer Wendy Wilton said she didn't learn of the proposal to bring Syrians to her community until the morning of the presentation by Louras. She said she was concerned about the cultural adaption by the refugees, the security threat posed by people coming from Syria and their economic impact on the community.

"We all want to do good, we all want to help people in need; my heart goes out to these refugees," Wilton said. "But we have to be assured that our policies and procedures are in place so this doesn't become a problem or a failure."

Louras said that he spoke with about 80 people about bringing Syrians, mostly families, to Rutland. All but one fully embraced the idea after being assured that security and economic concerns would be addressed, he said.

He said he anticipated there would be misinformation and some people would react based on fear rather than fact. The remedy to that, he said, is education.

"There's a clear understanding that this is not going to be easy," Louras said. "This could very well be downright hard. However, when given a choice between an easier wrong and a harder right, always choose the harder rights and this is the right thing to do for the community."


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