Rutland Welcomes: February 5, 2017

Dear Mr. VP,

When I was 14 — just a few weeks before high school started — my parents packed us up because my dad had finally found a full-time teaching gig. We left my hometown (which NO ONE LEAVES) and moved to Vermont. Rutland.

I was horrified. Just totally horrified. As an anxious introvert I was nervous about making new friends, and as a budding lefty activist, I wasn’t quite sure what this Rutland place was going to offer. Frankly, from 1998 – 2002, the answer was not much. This collage pretty much sums up my life in high school. Hanging out with the theater and band kids at Denny’s, ice cream (minus the kid, who certainly didn’t exist then), and you probably can’t tell, but that other picture is the high school football field where I spent many a Friday night pining away for a particular football player who shall always remain nameless. Believe me, it was unrequited.

The year after I graduated from high school I came home for break and there was a very small protest against the war in Iraq in front of the Unitarian Church downtown. I was there with my high school boyfriend and holding a sign that said “No Blood for Oil.” My enduring memory is of a lady screaming in my face about how “WE DON’T GET OIL FROM IRAQ YOU LIAR” and I tried to very calmly to explain resource politics to her (I was actually taking a class at that exact moment on the topic) — saying, among other things, “Well isn’t that the point? That we’d like to get it because of geopolitical blah blah  blah” — and she just screamed some more and walked away. So much for trying to learn new things. My impression of my city was not made warmer.

This is a place that didn’t even have a Mexican restaurant for most of my parents’ tenure here. What city (even a small one) doesn’t have a Mexican restaurant? Taco Bell doesn’t count. I can’t say this place is a hub of cultural activity (though the Paramount Theater is pretty cool) and the empty storefronts downtown are pretty depressing. My mom just let me know the coffee shop right on the main corner, where I spent much of my relationship with my first boyfriend staring longingly over the top of an Irish Cream soda until he left me for one of the baristas (true story), isn’t even going to be there. They’re moving out of downtown.

So I gotta tell you when last year I heard the mayor had agreed to take 100 Syrian refugees, I had a number of feelings. Shock, awe, pride. Worry. And not worry about Syrian refugees moving to Rutland and killing people — the opioid crisis is taking care of that for us — but rather them moving to Rutland and facing constant harassment and a lack of community. There’s no mosque (the closest is in Colchester, I think), no Halal butcher, no other folks who are easily identifiable as Muslim that I could remember. And my worry was reinforced when there was an immediate and vocal opposition to the resettlement plans. The comments on the Rutland Herald Facebook page were vomit-inducing. People actually made the argument that citizens should get to vote on who moved into the city, because that has ended so well in the past. The anti-resettlement group actually took on the moniker Rutland First, and let me point you back a few weeks so you can remember why that’s a problem.

Despite opposition, a frankly heroic Mayor Chris Louras held firm and Rutland became a resettlement site. Two families have settled here now, and two will be it because your boss ended the refugee resettlement plan, with no regard for little babies facing unimaginable horror and dying on beaches. Very pro-life of him.

I digress. Now, in Rutland, there are two Syrian families. There is no community of Syrians for them to join. Just two little families. Here’s a story introducing one them: don’t they look so terrifying? They want to learn how to ski. The mom is a French teacher. The dad is an accountant. They have a little boy and a little girl. The horror. Still, I worried. While I looked at these families and saw pleasant and engaging people looking for a new home, I’m not naive — some of my parents’ neighbors see a threat.

But I’m not as worried anymore. I’m home this weekend to visit. I don’t think these folks are going to have an easy row to hoe. The detractors are still here, and one of them (a doctor — so much for “do no harm”) is running for Alderman. We’ll see if the mayor keeps his position. There was a guy at the Farmer’s Market selling eggs and wearing a Make America Great Again hat. But twenty seconds after I walked by him, I walked by a guy wearing a “Make America Green Again” hat. And all over town, I saw signs of a welcoming community, ready to take in and embrace these families.

Rutland Welcomes has shown up. They’ve rallied, they’ve held informational panels, they’ve collected donations to outfit each family when they arrive. But most importantly, they’ve drowned out the Rutland First sentiment with a more loving and neighborly message. While these two families might not have a community of other Muslims here in the city, it’s clear that they do have a community. A community I’m really proud to call my home.

Mr. Vice President: if Rutland can be this welcoming, you can do it too. Please think long and hard about what it really means to be pro-life.

D

Edit: VPR is reporting that because of Friday’s court ruling, resettlement could resume in 10 days. Here’s hoping.

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