(Emma Lumberton, Watchdog.org) The first Syrian refugee families have arrived in Rutland, one arriving Wednesday, and the second on Thursday.
The leader of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program told Vermont Public Radio that the families would be staying with host families in Rutland. The identities of the host families are being kept confidential.
VRRP Director Amila Merdzanovic said her organization would start looking for housing and jobs while getting children enrolled in school.
“The privacy and security of these families are our first priorities. And we want to give them time to settle, to see where they are, to wrap their heads around that they’re here, and they’re safe and that life will resume,” Merdzanovic told VPR.
Along with VRRP, Rutland Welcomes, a local grassroots organization supporting resettlement, has expressed concern that incoming refugees could encounter hostile interactions with Rutland residents due to controversies about the program.
Don Chioffi, a leader of Rutland First, a group opposed to refugee settlement, said his group is out to protest corrupt government officials, not the refugees themselves.
“We’re not protesting individuals. We’re protesting the secrecy of the program and the misinformation dispelled by the settlement agencies,” he told Watchdog.
Last April, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras announced plans to make Rutland a permanent refugee resettlement community, starting with 100 Syrian refugees. The announcement sparked outrage from parts of the Rutland community, as well as from the Board of Aldermen, which, with the exception of Board President William Notte, was kept in the dark about Louras’ intentions for six months.
Alderman David Allaire told Watchdog he welcomes the refugee families but is upset over the secrecy officials used to prevent residents from having input on the program.
“I welcome these families,” Allaire said. “I want to make sure they are safe in our community.”
Allaire said he is particularly concerned about the repeated pattern of secrecy shown by VRRP. The group ignored and stonewalled multiple requests from the Board of Aldermen. Allaire said he found out about the refugees’ arrival through a Facebook link to VPR, the only news outlet Merdzanovic notified.
“They should have given us a heads up. As elected officials, we shouldn’t have received notification over Facebook,” Allaire said.
In his role on the board, Allaire led efforts to get information from VRRP and investigate the legality of the mayor’s actions. As doubts mounted about the mayor’s authority to authorize the program, City Attorney Charles Romeo issued a report that said a single comma in the city charter gave Louras authority to act alone without approval from the Board of Aldermen.
Allaire is running for office to unseat the mayor in the upcoming Town Meeting Day election.
Merdzanovic would not say what parts of Syria the refugee families were from, or where they have been living. Recent requests for information on the resettlement program’s costs, such as translation services in education, have received few answers.
Meanwhile Rutland Welcomes and other community volunteers have worked closely with VRRP to meet refugees’ needs.
John Weatherhog, pastor of Grace Congregational United Church in Rutland, told Watchdog his congregation voted to offer church support to refugees.
“We’re ready to step in when needs become apparent,” he said. “The Bible speaks to a strong core value of welcoming strangers. There’s no [rule] as to who you welcome.”
VRRP has started recruiting workers for its new Rutland center. Open positions include case managers, a case aid and a job developer.