A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town

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BI Graphics_Undividing America_800x100_Post A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town bi graphicsundividing 20america800x100post


Christopher Louras Rutland Vermont A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town louras
Chris
Louras outside an exhibit of Syrian art in Rutland,
Vermont.

AP Photo/Elise
Amendola


  • Chris Louras, the former mayor of Rutland, Vermont, had
    a plan to bring 25 Syrian refugee families to town.
  • Many residents criticized Louras over what they saw as
    the ‘secrecy’ in which the plan was carried out.
  • The issue divided the town into two camps, with both
    sides furious with the other. A recent town meeting devolved
    into insults and shouting.
  • Louras lost his reelection bid, and only three of the
    25 families made it to Rutland.

The plan was supposed to revitalize the economy of a sleepy
Vermont town, and give its small workforce a much-needed boost.
It seemed like a win-win. But when Rutland’s five-term mayor
Chris Louras announced in April 2016 that 25 refugee families
would be coming to the struggling postindustrial town, he awoke
fear and vitriol that eventually cost him his job.

This was around the time Donald Trump, then a candidate for the
Republican nomination, proposed national bans on refugees and
immigrants from certain majority-Muslim countries. Rutland became
a referendum on the nation’s willingness to welcome displaced
people from around the world.

Some in the town formed a group called “Rutland Welcomes,” a
volunteer group that planned to find housing, transportation, and
jobs for prospective refugees, and even gave the few who arrived
baskets of fruit and vegetables.

Those against the plan formed “Rutland First,” a loose-knit
coalition of residents whose opinions ranged from skepticism at
whether Rutland could bear the costs of resettling the refugees
to outright hostility and fear-mongering.

Then, on March 6, came the mayoral election.

Louras, an Army veteran who had been a popular and
uncontroversial mayor for a decade, was ousted by alderman David
Allaire, who had lost to Louras in two previous elections.
Allaire clobbered Louras, centering his campaign on opposition to
the plan, which he criticized for freezing out the board of
aldermen and Rutland residents.

The election was “absolutely” a referendum on refugees, Jennie
Gartner, a local high-school history teacher and a representative
of Rutland Welcomes, told Business Insider.

Allaire’s election win, combined with Trump’s travel ban barring
refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including
Iraq and Syria, all but decided the issue.

Only three refugee families — two Syrian and one Iraqi — have
been resettled so far.


Rutland vermont A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town ap16328774098803
Downtown
Rutland.

AP Photo/Elise
Amendola


An American town like any other

In 2015, Louras had an idea to fix the town’s “unhealthily low
unemployment rate.”

Rutland was shedding population. Since the 1970s,
16%
of its people have moved away, leaving homes empty and
nearby businesses looking for workers.

“That’s the story of many small postindustrial cities that have a
declining population and a graying population,” Louras told
Business Insider.

Louras spotted an opportunity to get Rutland involved in the US’s
newly announced plan to resettle thousands of refugees from the
Middle East. Rutland’s businesses have tons of open, entry-level
jobs, and the town has cheap, vacant housing stock for 3,000
additional residents, according to Louras, who thought refugees
would be perfect candidates to solve some of the town’s problems.

While only a few refugees made it to town before Louras was
ousted, those who did confirmed Louras’ intuition, he says. One
refugee, who arrived in January, secured a full-time job at The
Bakery, a popular
local café
, within weeks. He now splits his time between an
early-morning baking shift and English-language classes, Louras
said.

What Louras didn’t count on was that Rutland’s debate would get
sucked into a larger divide stretching across the country.


Wendy Wilton Rutland treasurer A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town ap16328774190286
Rutland’s
treasurer, Wendy Wilton.

AP
Photo/Elise Amendola


Rolling out the unwelcome mat

A month after Louras presented his plan, the town, much of it
divided between Rutland Welcomes and Rutland First, began to
unravel.

Some accused Louras of hatching the plan in secret.

Tim Cook, one of the founders of Rutland First and an Iraq War
veteran, alleged that Louras submitted a State Department
application for refugees six months before the April
announcement. Breitbart, the far-right website, picked up the

story
. Small Rutland was becoming big news.

“The national story out there is that we’re hateful and biased,
and that’s bulls—,” Wendy Wilton, a member of Rutland First,
said. “We just wanted to know what was in that application.”

Like other critics, she accused Louras of lying about the plan,
saying that he told the town he intended to resettle only 100
refugees but that his actual plans were to bring 100 a year.
According to Wilton, the town aldermen requested a copy of the
refugee application from the US Committee for Refugees and
Immigrants (USCRI) twice, and the nonprofit was uncooperative.

“If this was the most wonderful thing in the world, why wouldn’t
you want to cooperate with the local governing body?” said
Wilton, who, like Cook, added that she wasn’t opposed to
resettling a few refugees, just not 100.

Meanwhile, on the other side, Rutland Welcomes was holding
regular meetings at a Unitarian Church with hundreds of residents
forming committees to push the resettlement process along,
arrange English tutors, and gather donations of household goods
and clothing.


Rutland vermont A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town ap17027862105208
Kerry
Coarse, coordinator for support services for the Northwest
Primary School, shows a newly arrived refugee family the school
playground.

AP Photo/Lisa
Rathke


Then criticism of Rutland Welcomes spread across the town.

Gartner, the high-school history teacher and a member of Rutland
Welcomes, says she and others were criticized online by people
associated with Rutland First for teaching her class about Islam,
which is part of the state curriculum.

Gartner, Louras, and others in favor of resettlement have said
that very few of those against the resettlement actually care
about the secrecy of “the process,” seeing it as a cover for
fear. The vast majority of Rutland First, she says, is people who
“were afraid of Muslims, afraid of people from other countries,”
she said. If Louras was planning on bringing a new tech firm to
Rutland, people wouldn’t criticize the way the decision came
about, she added.

At a board of aldermen meeting last year, a number of
anti-refugee aldermen publicly lashed out at representatives from
the USCRI, who were present. Members of the public, some of whom
had threatened violence against the USCRI representatives, were
permitted to lob

 personal attacks from the
microphone. Policemen were called into the meeting to protect the
USCRI representatives because of specific, personal threats.
Christopher Ettori, a pro-refugee town alderman, told Business
Insider the meeting was a “debacle.”

Many Rutlanders have said that much of the criticism falls on
Louras, who they say did little to allay the concerns and anger
of those against the plan. Ettori said that Louras didn’t have “a
real dialogue with people” and failed to arrange speakers or
panels to educate residents why the plan would benefit the town
and not sacrifice security.

Instead, Meg Hansen, a columnist for the Rutland Herald,
wrote in March
, Louras “chose to malign his critics as
racist.”

For his part, Louras seemed to have little patience for Rutland
First’s objections.

Cook, the local doctor, maintained that he wanted to see the
refugees succeed — and has even offered his services as a
physician — but says he wants them to succeed by “Americanizing”
themselves.

“Getting them a baseball bat, and Keystone beer by the suitcase,
whatever it takes,” Cook said. “You succeed in this country by
accepting the fact that there is such a thing as American
culture, and by practicing it.”


protest jfk airport A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town rtsxtvq
A
protest against President Trump’s travel ban outside John F.
Kennedy International Airport in January 2017.

Reutesr/Andrew Kelly

The national conversation

Things came to a head in the run-up to this year’s election in
March. Days after Trump was sworn into office in January, he
signed
the executive order temporarily barring refugees and
immigrants
from seven majority-Muslim countries. While his
base loved it, protests broke out in cities and at airports
across the country.

Rutland’s mayoral election soon became a microcosm of the
national debate about immigration and refugees, according to
Louras, who said residents used language that echoed the rhetoric
of the Trump campaign.

Trump “definitely influenced what happened here,” said Gartner,
who added that the administration’s position on refugees gave
Rutland First cover to “feel pretty safe in their fear.”

As a result, Louras says, the Rutland First side wasn’t willing
to listen to the pro-resettlement side’s explanations for why the
refugees would be a boost to the town’s economy.

“The noise around the irrational concerns didn’t allow a lot of
those rational people to listen to the facts,” Louras said.

At the same time, David Allaire, Louras’ opponent, ran his
campaign on a message criticizing the mayor’s handling of the
refugee issue and called for “healing the divide” in the
community. The refugee issue, combined with fury over Louras’
unrelated attempt to reform the fire department, led to a
landslide victory for Allaire.

“This is what sunk him, from my perspective,” Gartner said of the
refugee issue. “This is what Louras had to fall on his sword
for.”


Rutland Vermont A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town ap17027862081305 201
Newly
arrived refugees tour a classroom at the Northwest Primary School
in Rutland.

AP Photo/Lisa
Rathke


Allaire declined requests for an interview.

In the months that followed, Allaire has done little publicly to
bring the town together, alderman Ettori said. He added that he
doesn’t expect the new mayor to lead “some sort of
reconciliation.”

In some ways, Allaire is repeating Louras’ mistakes. While no new
refugees are expected in 2017, Allaire has met with
the USCRI and the State Department to
discuss bringing 100 more refugees to the city in 2018, according
to sources with knowledge of the meeting. Publicly, Allaire has
said that he is deferring to the federal government on the
refugee issue, according to Ettori.

And the issue, in some ways, is still raw. 

Those that championed the resettlement, like Hunter Berryhill, a
high-school English teacher in town, say that as the refugees who
did make it are successful (there were three families total). He
and others hope the “false stereotypes start to crumble.”

Sana Mustafa, a Syrian student who arrived in the US in 2013 and
visited Rutland in June, said that she too thinks that refugees
suffer from stereotypes.

“There’s no name. There are no faces. There are only numbers, and
we’re always associated with guns and terrorists,” said Mustafa.
“When people see me, they see me as a civilized, normal person …
and that’s how we all look.”

Business Insider made several attempts to speak with the refugees
who have settled in Rutland but was told by USCRI officials that
interviews weren’t a good idea for the refugees’ safety, given
the tense situation.

Louras, who is in regular contact with the families, said they
are “faring very well.”

Still, he struggles, he says, with what went wrong with the plan.

“If I had the silver bullet, I’d still be in office,” Louras
said.


Rutland Vermont A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town A plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees ripped apart a Vermont town ap17028496560745 201
A
newly arrived Syrian refugee family in the home of their
sponsoring family in Rutland.

AP
Photo/Lisa Rathke


Unemployed

Rutland is the kind of place where people can’t escape one
another. Even now, Louras sees his replacement, Allaire,
regularly when he goes to maintain his garden, which is a few
hundred feet from the new mayor’s home. The two even have the
same nieces and nephews through marriage.

Louras said it’s not his responsibility to help the new mayor or
give him advice.

“I’m an unemployed former army helicopter test pilot. And now,
I’m an unemployed former small-town mayor. I’m just looking for a
job that I can be successful at,” Louras said.

He doesn’t think Allaire has done much to fix the issues that
Louras was once criticized for.

“I’m not sure anyone can communicate the value of refugee
resettlement in a way where an entire community will accept it.
It’s the families themselves who provide the best argument.”

Correction: A previous version of this story discussed a
board of alderman meeting that occurred in May, 2017. It actually
occurred in May, 2016. 



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