We want the refugees to come home

February 2, 2017

Kristen Martin tells how her hometown of Rutland, Vermont, organized in support of refugees--and is now determined to stop Trump from destroying their solidarity.

THE PEOPLE of Rutland, Vermont, were ready to welcome 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and help them make the town their home this week--until Trump's racist ban took effect.

So instead, hundreds of residents and others gathered on January 28 to protest the president's repugnant executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The number of refugees who were supposed to settle in Rutland far surpassed refugee numbers in substantially larger New England cities like Boston or Providence. Devastatingly, only two families made it to the town before Trump's racist ban took effect, leading organizers to call for a protest in response.

Protesters, many of whom spent countless hours preparing the city for the Syrian families, mourned together and demanded that Trump reverse the ban immediately. As one volunteer told the Local 22 News, "We are heartbroken that the thousands fleeing war and horror will not be given the opportunity to begin a new life in Rutland."

As a Vermont native and socialist activist, this story has gripped me deeply since the news of the refugee resettlement was announced back in April 2016.

Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras speaks to a rally against Donald Trump's Muslim ban
Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras speaks to a rally against Donald Trump's Muslim ban (Robert Layman | The Rutland Herald)

I continue to be inspired by the solidarity shown by ordinary people in my rural Vermont hometown and think it provides much-needed evidence of the basic generosity of humanity and the capacity of ordinary people to organize society in their interests.

IN APRIL 2016, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras announced that Rutland would welcome 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the small city. It was a glimmer of hope at that moment, as governors across the U.S. callously announced their opposition to hosting Syrians fleeing devastating violence.

Few could believe that Rutland--a 97 percent white, post-industrial town wrecked by the recession, devastated by the opioid crisis and consistently labeled as the most conservative town in Vermont--would become home to the largest population of refugees in New England.

But Rutland, a city that also makes headlines for its annual record-breaking blood drive, immediately proved that the working-class town tended toward solidarity over bigotry.

Within days of the announcement, the grassroots group Rutland Welcomes sprang up to orchestrate preparations for the families' arrival, expanding to a staggering 20 sub-committees tasked with different projects, such as donation drives and employment assistance.

The subsequent outpouring of support was and continues to be staggering. One quick scroll through the Rutland Welcomes Facebook page reveals the desire of average Rutland residents to show their support in whatever way possible.

One commenter posts a recipe for the perfect kibbeh, another offers driving lessons for the new families, and another describes the 12 bicycles he painstakingly refurbished for their use. Countless others offer time and resources to help support the families.

On a recent trip home, I was moved to see the preparations in person. Residents screened movies on the refugee experience, donated gift cards and sent messages of support. I visited an art gallery the town had curated an exhibit about the Syrian refugee experience.

I learned that the local co-op specially ordered new spices and produce to support the Syrian diet, and a local church had began offering Arabic lessons. Students at my alma mater, Rutland High School, formed the New Neighbors Club to prepare for the families arrival and the school district hired several ESL teachers.

Without the help or input of politicians, ordinary people got to work to show that Rutland welcomes refugees. Like the people in Iceland who opened their homes to Syrian refugees in 2015, or those risking their lives to conduct rescues missions on the Mediterranean, Vermonters joined the growing chorus of people demanding: Let them in!

The announcement was also met with a tide of bigotry and Islamophobia from those who wished to prevent the resettlement. Rutland was featured on Breitbart News and other right-wing news sites, and became the target of national anti-Muslim hate groups.

The grotesquely named Rutland First was spawned as an organizational front for these forces to spread their message through the city.

Despite these efforts, though, most people of Rutland remained in favor of refugee resettlement, and volunteers waged a campaign to garner support. Rutland became an inspiration for people across the country demanding that their cities be opened up to immigrants and refugees.

During my visit, I was heartened to see that most lawns sported a visible Rutland Welcomes lawn sign, and most local businesses plastered their windows with messages of support. Despite the racist rhetoric of the Trump campaign, organizers remained optimistic and energetic in the months leading up to the inauguration.

FOLLOWING TRUMP'S inauguration and the massive demonstrations of that weekend, mass protest is back on the agenda, including in my hometown. Drawing from the energy of the previous weekend's Women's March in Montpelier, Rutland organizers called for a rally in opposition to Trump's Muslim ban and in support of the two Syrian families that made it to the city before the ban was instated.

Several hundred people turned out in Main Street Park on Saturday in what was one of the few, if not the only, large-scale protests the city has seen in the past 25 years. Protesters took to the streets in Rutland at the same time as mass demonstrations were taking place across the country in support of immigrants and refugees.

As one person wrote on Facebook: "We have the national stage right now with regard to refugees. BE LOUD. Tomorrow's show of solidarity and peaceful protest will be seen around the world. Let's make it known that this is their home and we want them to come home!!!!"

As we see what racist and bigoted policies and rhetoric comes down the pipeline in the coming months, the story of Rutland can be a small reminder of what is possible: ordinary people are fully capable of running society in their own interests and can do so much better than the politicians at the top.

It serves as a reminder that ordinary people's first inclination is toward solidarity rather than bigotry, and serves to push back against the mainstream narrative of the hopelessly racist white working class. In the coming months, people of all cities should demand that their cities open their doors wide to immigrants and refugees and organize to make it so.

Let Rutland also be a lesson to Trump, his ilk and those who admire him: That ordinary people are good and decent, they will rise to organize their communities, and they will not let bigotry and racism win without a tremendous fight.

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