Three Years After Rutland Refugee Debate, The City Still Needs People

Sep 24, 2019

When Rutland's former mayor Christopher Louras announced in the spring of 2016 that the city would resettle 100 mostly Syrian refugees to boost the local workforce, two camps formed: one that welcomed the new families, and another that didn't.

Several years later, both groups have mostly disbanded. In the meantime, the city has returned to solving the problem that caused the whole refugee resettlement debate: it needs more people to move to the region.

In the third and final installment of her three part series, VPR's Nina Keck looks into the legacy of the refugee resettlement debate and how it has since shaped Rutland.

More From VPR: He Was The Mayor Who Brought Refugees To Rutland. His Regret? Not Bringing More. [Sept. 22]

There are still some houses that have white lawn signs out front for Rutland Welcomes, the group that organized in support of resettling refugees in the city.

Rutland Welcomes formed several years ago, when the city expected 100 mostly Syrian refugees to resettle in the area.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR File

Three years ago, Rutland Welcomes had more than 2,400 followers on Facebook. Hundreds showed up to their meetings. And people donated piles of furniture and household items for the Syrian families expected to arrive.

But then the Trump administration capped the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. in Sept. 2017, and only three families — 14 people — had made it to Rutland.

Sherrie Pomainville walks down the aisle between the shelves at BROC Community Action in Rutland. The shelves were once full of household items donated by community members to Rutland Welcomes, which passed on the supplies to BROC when the Trump administration capped refugee resettlement in the U.S.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Left with an abundance of supplies, Rutland Welcomes gave many of the items to BROC Community Action, a Rutland nonprofit that helps needy families in Rutland and Bennington Counties.

While Rutland Welcomes doesn't really exist anymore as a group, evidence of its efforts lives on in a downstairs storeroom at BROC.  Sherrie Pomainville, who supervises community services in Rutland, pointed to sparse shelves dotted with mixing bowls, curtain rods and bed linens.

“So, this is what's left,” she said. "This aisle was filled all the way up ... I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm never gonna be able to give all this stuff away,'" she said. But the shelves did, over time, empty.

Cheryl Hooker was part of Rutland Welcomes and said the group could quickly re-deploy if more refugee families ever arrive in the future.

The first two Syrian families that did come to Rutland, back in January 2017, stayed temporarily with members of the group.

Hooker remembers trying to shield the family who stayed in her home from all the media attention.

“Those few days that they were here, they were staying in our attic, which is finished off and has lots of beds," she said. "I felt like we were in the middle of an Anne Frank story or something. We had to be very quiet about it, couldn't tell anybody about it, and then all of a sudden there were all kinds of commotion around it. The outpouring of support was phenomenal."

Hooker said she brought the father of the family to the grocery store several times.

Vermont state senator Cheryl Hooker was part of the Rutland Welcomes group and helped house a Syrian family for the first few days of their move to Rutland.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

"People would stop him and welcome him to the community," she said. "They gave me money to buy the family groceries. It was wonderful.”

Hooker and her husband have remained close with the family and said they all see one another often.

In the meantime, Hooker, a well-known local Democrat, believes her work with Rutland Welcomes helped her win an elusive seat in the Vermont Senate last year. Rutland County has long been a Republican stronghold, and many called her win an upset.

During the same time period, anger over former Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras' announcement that Rutland would resettle the refugees — an announcement Louras did not run by the entire Rutland Board of Aldermen first — helped David Allaire unseat Louras.

“It awakened a lot of people that weren't normally politically active,” Allaire said. “Look at how many ran for city office in 2017."

Seventeen candidates for the board of aldermen was not a record, but he said it was a much higher number than usual.

Still, Allaire thinks much of that initial excitement has died down and that things in Rutland aren’t all that different today than they were three years ago.

Mayor David Allaire believes the refugee resettlement debate excited a lot of people in town, at least at first.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

But the former editor of the Rutland Herald, Randal Smathers, believes debate over resettlement did spark lasting political change in the city.

Smathers now directs the Rutland Free Library. He said that while voters elected a more conservative mayor in 2017, they also voted in a number of more progressive aldermen.

Smathers added, “I see more people who are progressive in this city sort of standing up and being active and saying, 'You know, I have a vision for what life should be like in Rutland, and it is different than how it's being portrayed from the outside. I don't want to live in a conservative stronghold where we don't respect people who look different, or women, or whatever the issue might happen to be.'"

Randal Smathers, director of Rutland Free Library.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

What has happened in Rutland, Smathers said, is “an absolute sea change.”

But he and nearly everyone else interviewed for this story said it’s hard to know how much of this is a reflection of national politics and how much is afterburn from the local debate over resettling refugees.

NAACP Vermont Director Tabitha Moore said activism born out of this debate inspired her — and made it easier for her — to launch the Rutland Area NAACP in 2016.

“It actually just fortified my resolve that this is what really needs to happen,” she said. “I was really hopeful when I saw Rutland Welcomes come along. I was like, ‘Oh good, I'm not alone.’”

More from VPR: 'Magical Place For Us': Syrian Family Finds New Home In Rutland [Sept. 23]

At the same time, Don Chioffi, a conservative former state lawmaker who mobilized with Rutland First, the group that opposed refugee resettlement, feels they too made strides. "I think the whole city government learned a lesson about transparency,” said Chioffi. “And I've seen that gradually improving right since Dave [Allaire] took office.”

Former city treasurer Wendy Wilton, another outspoken member of the group, was awarded a job in the Trump administration. 

While Rutland First has mostly disbanded, the group's Facebook page had posts about local candidates it supported and those it opposed during the 2018 election.

Wendy Wilton, Rutland's former city treasurer. .
Credit John Dillon / VPR File

Dr. Timothy Cook, another leading member of the group, declined to be interviewed for this series. Similarly, Dave Trapeni did not return phone messages left for him.

Chioffi said Rutland First's mission was to protest what they felt was an unjust burden for Rutland. He added that he's grateful the resettlement stopped.

“If the program had been developed the way they intended it to develop, and Trump had not been elected and put a stop to that, then we'd have the problems supporting them,” Chioffi said. He predicted other outomes would have resulted from continued resettlement, including "Sharia law" and "no-go zones."

For his work on behalf of Rutland First, Chioffi was named 2017’s Citizen Activist of the Year by ACT! for America. The group’s website describes its mission as focused on preventing terrorism and criminal activity while preserving civil liberties.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls ACT! for America an anti-Muslim hate group.

Many in Rutland, however, including Chioffi, bristle at the notion that opposition to refugee resettlement was xenophobic or racist.

In this photo from 2016, Rutland First member Dave Trapeni, right, circulates a petition to get refugee resettlement on the Rutland city ballot.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Randal Smathers, the former editor of the Rutland Herald, thinks that's too simplistic and not accurate.

"There are certainly racists among us and that's true anywhere," Smathers said. "But I think a lot of people choose to live in rural corners of America, places like Rutland, because they're not crazy about change. When you say, 'We're going to bring in hundreds of people from the far side of the world, and you're just gonna have to learn to live with it,' I think for a lot of those people, they had a really honest response that said, 'I'm not comfortable with that.'”

But Tabitha Moore, the Rutland Area NAACP president, said she’d like people to take a long, honest look at that discomfort.

“We need to ask ourselves some tough questions, like what is it about this change that's so unsettling for you?” she said. “Yeah, it's really easy to not accept change here. Let's work on that, because Vermont has to change. The city’s demographics are proof."

Tabitha Moore, NAACP Vermont Director and the president of the Rutland Area NAACP.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

The same year Moore started the local NAACP chapter, students at Rutland High School formed the New Neighbors Club to welcome Syrian refugees. Even after the resettlement stopped, the students decided to keep meeting.

Now the New Neighbors Club tackles a variety of social justice issues. On a recent Friday afternoon, about twenty students met in Jennie Gartner’s social studies classroom. Hunter Postemski, 17, was among them, and he said he got involved right at the end of the resettlement period.

“I had come from a really small school," he said. "I have used New Neighbors to try and see some of these new perspectives."

Ana Aguilar moved to Rutland from Mexico seven years ago. The 17-year-old said she joined the club after members got school officials to fly a Black Lives Matter flag last year.

New Neighbors Club members Cameron Greene, left, Ana Aguilar, center, and Hunter Postemski, right, meet with Rutland High School social studies teacher Jennie Gartner on a recent Friday to tackle social justice issues.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

“Even just now, even the first meeting, we already started discussing stuff about how we can fix LGBTQ [inequality], and how we can fix environmental things," Aguilar said. “It’s pretty cool to be involved in something that's so important."

Three years into all this — the refugee resettlement debate, the new advocacy groups, the political shifts — Rutland continues to struggle with the problem that sparked this whole controversy in the first place.

Former Mayor Christopher Louras wanted to bring in refugees to help reverse the city’s shrinking population. And that problem hasn’t gone away according to William Notte, a former city alderman who now serves in the state legislature.

“We say we want more people, we need to grow the grand list, we need to fill our houses, 'Oh, but a certain type of people,'" he said. "And that is a stumbling block that will trip up Rutland and communities like us for as long as we allow it to.”

Rutland officials continue to search (and spend money on) ways to boost the city's population and workforce.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR file

A number of city officials who argued against resettlement, citing cost concerns, are the same city officials who approved in 2016 spending $100,000 over two years on a marketing campaign to lure new residents to the area.

The board of aldermen approved another $32,000 to continue those efforts, which so far have attracted 22 new families to the region.