Around the second week of January, a group of refugees will arrive in the city of Rutland, Vermont. They will most likely be Syrian. They will most likely be Muslim. They will most likely be families of three or four: a father, a mother, one or two children. They will be the first Syrian refugees in Vermont; the first official refugees, period, in Rutland.
The plan is for the refugees to be welcomed at an airport, most likely Burlington International, by a nervous but eager committee. There they’ll meet Amila Merdzanovic, the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP)—once a refugee herself, from Bosnia. Rutland’s mayor, Christopher Louras, will also be there. And so will a crowd of people from a group called Rutland Welcomes. These are their new neighbors. The ones, at least, who want them there.
As they drive into Rutland, the refugees will glimpse three church steeples and a handful of simple houses that rise up from a small valley, gently nestled between snow-flecked mountains. They’ll pass yards dotted with lawn signs. Some bear Rutland Welcomes’ logo: a simple white heart with a thin black arrow through its center. Please, come in. Others, residue from November, read “Make America Great Again.” Please, stay out.
VRRP has arranged to house the families in apartments in or around downtown. They’ll see upscale restaurants on Center Street, Rutland’s pitch to tourists. They’ll see pickups and minivans parked in front of the mall—a Walmart and a Price Chopper and a Dollar Tree. A railroad track snakes behind the superstores—a remnant of Rutland’s industrial past. This will be their window on America.
Like so much of the rest of the country, Rutland is struggling to figure out who it is and just how welcoming it wants to be. Over a single weekend in November, I heard residents call Rutland “Rutvegas,” a “backwater town,” “the Rust Belt of Vermont,” the “solar capital of New England,” “boring,” “poor,” “magical,” a “conservative bastion in a very blue state,” “welcoming,” “biased and racist,” “inclusive.” A “genuine town” that is “constant” and “slow-changing.” This little Vermont city turns out to be a microcosm of today’s fractured America. How Rutland sees its present depends on how it sees its past, and in January, Rutland will face its future.
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On November 16, 2015, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin announced that Vermont would gladly welcome Syrian refugees amidst a swarm of other governors proclaiming the contrary. In Rutland, Mayor Christopher Louras saw an opportunity “to do the right thing and to rebuild our community.” He texted the governor: How could Rutland get involved?
Louras is a lifelong Rutlander and a five-term mayor. A boyish 55, he wears sleek frameless glasses with bright metallic blue temples. He drives an electric Smart car that looks very, very small when he parks in Rutland’s extra-long parking spaces (designed for pickup trucks). He loves all kinds of funky expressions: “Good golly.” “Horse’s ass.”