Next month, a mix of Syrian and Iraqi refugees will begin arriving in Rutland, Vermont. They’ll be the first of 100 that will be resettled there over the next year. Though there’s been some opposition to the plan in the aging, blue-collar city of 16,000, proponents remain optimistic — and many have been volunteering long hours to ensure the plan succeeds.
For example, on a recent Thursday night, Rutland’s Unitarian Universalist church was filled with the sound of Arabic.
It’s not a language you hear much in Rutland. There are few Muslims in the city, no Middle Eastern restaurants and no mosques tucked between the many churches.
Morgan Denehy grew up near Rutland, studied Arabic in college and spent time living in Egypt and Morocco.
He was living in New York City when he heard about the Rutland refugee resettlement plan and says it gave him a good reason to move back home.
“I was really blown away by the amount of interest that people had for wanting to help,” says Denehy. “And I just sort of felt that I had to do my part.”
He said it has always been his experience, learning Arabic or any language, “that [when] you address someone in their own language it’s really powerful.”
Since early November, between 15 and 30 people have been attending his free, weekly Arabic classes. Some come every week while others pop in and out. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun, and there’s plenty of laughter mixed in with pronunciation tips.
Two Arabic language professors from Middlebury College, Usama Soltan and Samuel Liebhaber, have been driving down each Thursday to help, often with students from the college in tow.
“People want to bridge that gap, and even if it’s just to say ‘hello,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘welcome,’ ‘my name is … ,’ they want to be able to say that and extend themselves,” says Marsha Cassel.
Cassel is a long-time French teacher in Rutland and is thrilled to see so many people are trying to learn Arabic, something she believes will also teach empathy.
“I think it’s good for us to understand, to just wrestle with this language, which is so different — because they [the refugees] are wrestling with English, which is so different.”
But when you consider cities across New England, you might be wondering, if Rutland is so small, and there’s so little Middle Eastern culture there, why bring Syrian and Iraqi refugees there to begin with?
Compared to Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, where resettlement has been going on for decades, housing costs in Rutland are low and local employers say they have jobs to fill.
And many, including Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, believe refugees will give the city a much-needed boost.
“My response to people who say Rutland’s not ready for this type of thing is, ‘Then when?’” says Louras. “And how has this been working out for us? Not too well. Our population is continuing to decline and we need an infusion of new blood and new culture.”
Barbara Richter agrees.
She unlocks a storage room in a local church. It’s filled with items donated for the refugees. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves with linens and others with stacks of cookware.
“So here you see all of the sauce pans. And over here, we have full sets of dishes. Some of them are still in boxes,” she says, smiling.
Richter is part of Rutland Welcomes, a volunteer group that formed last spring just after the refugee resettlement plan was announced.
Richter says they have a warehouse full of donated furniture and a small army of volunteers ready to tutor, mentor, clean and prepare apartments and provide transportation.
“With one phone call, I could mobilize a network of people to come in here and take what they need to set up a home,” Richter says.
Across town, Emily Gleason, an assistant professor at nearby Castleton University, greets 20 teachers and school counselors.
Gleason has a Ph.D. in literacy and specializes in multi-cultural studies. When she heard about Rutland’s resettlement plans, she designed a semester-long course to help educators better understand the refugee crisis and the needs of refugee children.
“We try to think about the cultural barriers they might face walking into a small rural school in New England and how we can be as inclusive and welcoming as possible,” says Gleason.
Unlike many New England cities, Rutland doesn’t have a refugee community already in place, so creating one has stirred up a lot of uncertainty and fear. Some hope a Trump Administration will slow down or even stop resettlement.
Gleason says because of Rutland’s small size, the divide in the community feels bigger.
“This is such a small local stage that it’s all playing out with people very closely,” she explains. “I moved here from Oakland, California, and you can be on one side of an issue and never see the people in the opposition. Here, it’s not like that.”
Jackie Gauthier agrees.
Sitting in Gleason’s class, she shared with the others about how that’s played out for her at work. She’s a paraeducator in Rutland and says even among her coworkers, refugee resettlement has become difficult to talk about.
“I had one person the other day say, ‘I don’t know why I feel this way, because my family were immigrants, but I’m just not comfortable with them coming to our community.’ So she was struggling with her own feelings and she didn’t really understand why she felt that way,” says Gauthier.
At a local lunch spot, Rutland resident Matt Howland says he continues to have big concerns about how the city will absorb so many newcomers and remains unconvinced that Rutland is the best place for them to come.
While Howland applauds the efforts of local volunteers, he worries too much of the resettlement effort depends on them.
“Five years from now, what resources does the city have in place to pick up [the slack] if a group like Rutland Welcomes no longer has the means to help support this program going forward?” he asked.
Roman Smiechowski isn’t worried. While not a refugee, he immigrated to Rutland from Poland 24 years ago, learned the language and sent a daughter to law school.
“I look in mirror every day,” he says. “I came here and I made it — why can’t they?”
Smiechowski teaches drivers education and is developing a course to help refugees learn to drive.
He says right now everything is unknown — even the refugees’ arrival date — so volunteers are all waiting for those first families to arrive.
Once the refugees actually begin living in the community, Smiechowski hopes people in Rutland will see them for what they are, “other families,” he says, “just trying to make it.”
This report is part three of a four-part series called “Facing Change.” It comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.