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Vermont Town Debates Syrian Refugee Resettlement Program


President Obama has promised to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees here in the U.S., but it has been a slow process and a pretty divisive one, too. That's playing out in Rutland, Vt. It's a small working class city with an aging and dwindling population. Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck has the story.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: Refugees have been coming to Vermont for decades, but typically they've settled around Burlington. In April, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras surprised many when he announced that he and the state's refugee resettlement program wanted to bring 100 Syrians to Rutland, a city of fewer than 16,000 people.


CHRISTOPHER LOURAS: This community is at a time in its history when we must seize the opportunity to welcome the next generation of new Americans escaping a desperate situation of war and chaos.

KECK: Louras said his own grandfather fled to Rutland from Greece in 1906 to escape the Ottoman Turks. He said today Syrians are no different.


LOURAS: People who like 100 years ago will grow our population, our economy, and most importantly provide the cultural enrichment that we so desperately need.

KECK: But Kelly Cross told city officials she's skeptical.


KELLY CROSS: Although I want to help these people, I don't want to help these people at the cost of our own citizens.

KECK: She and other local residents worry the city will end up footing the bill for the newcomers who will tentatively begin arriving in October if Rutland's resettlement proposal is approved by the U.S. State Department. A decision on that is expected in mid-July.



TRAPENI: I'm Dave Trapeni.

KECK: Rutland resident Dave Trapeni worries about public safety with Muslim refugees, and he's angry the mayor didn't seek public input first. He's been going door to door with a petition to put the issue before voters. Guy Rinebolt, a Vietnam veteran, sits down with Trapeni in his small kitchen and adds his name to the list.

GUY RINEBOLT: We have people that are homeless. Where are they going to these hundred Syrians? You know, Rutland - why Rutland? Why here?

TRAPENI: Yeah. Well, we believe that the community is too small for this.


TRAPENI: And too poor.


RINEBOLT: While Trapeni has gotten the requisite number of signatures, a vote on the refugees would be non-binding, and the city's Board of Alderman is divided over whether they'll even allow it. Stephanie Jones respects that opinions on refugees vary, but she says Rutland is absolutely up to the challenge of helping people in need. And a vote won't change that.

STEPHANIE JONES: I do not think we are too small. I think that we are big-hearted, and I think that goes a long way.

KECK: Jones is one of the leaders of a group called Rutland Welcomes. More than 100 members met recently at a local church where small groups talked over everything from how to help with housing and transportation to where best to store donated furniture.

JOHN WEATHERHOGG: Tonight is about how do we continue to organize to welcome a bunch of refugees into our community?

KECK: Many in the group believe the new arrivals will bring youth, energy and diversity to a city that's been working hard to change its image. Pat Hunter is one of the group's founders.

PAT HUNTER: I'm just so proud of Rutland. Very sad by some of the fear and the pain of those who were afraid of this program. But the outpouring of support just makes me so proud.

KECK: Officials with Vermont's refugee resettlement program are equally impressed, but they admit they're troubled by the push for a vote in Rutland as it brings up safety concerns for the refugees. Stacie Blake is with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

STACIE BLAKE: We have no interest in placing them in a situation where there would be any, you know, threat to their personal safety. Anything less than a full welcome is really not what refugees deserve.

KECK: No other Vermont community has voted on refugees. And many believe a referendum will say more about locals than newcomers. For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina has been reporting for VPR since 1996, primarily focusing on the Rutland area. An experienced journalist, Nina covered international and national news for seven years with the Voice of America, working in Washington, D.C., and Germany. While in Germany, she also worked as a stringer for Marketplace. Nina has been honored with two national Edward R. Murrow Awards: In 2006, she won for her investigative reporting on VPR and in 2009 she won for her use of sound. She began her career at Wisconsin Public Radio.

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