FILE: Naima Mohamed laughs with friends as a group of refugees check the progress of a Days of '47 Parade float in July of 2016.
In the current climate marked by fears of Syrian refugees, a small Vermont town is bucking the trend and raising a policy ruckus. They are welcoming Syrian refugees in an effort to combine humanitarian outreach with local economic development. Their experimental attitude should be applauded and potentially modeled to help alleviate refugee crises.
In Europe and across the U.S., fears of terrorist infiltration amid the stream of refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East have created major headwinds for those inclined to welcome asylum seekers. While there is a particular fear of Syrian refugees, the reality is that a small fraction of refugees entering the United States are from Syria.
Rutland, Vermont, created a local controversy and garnered national attention when it announced that more than 100 refugees (largely from Syria) would relocate to the community. As reported in The New York Times, the mayor has vigorously advocated in favor of hosting refugees because “we need people.” He concluded that the economic decline of the community may be reversed by welcoming and integrating refugees into the local economy.
Like Utah’s governor, the governor of Vermont resisted the majority trend among governors by announcing that his state would welcome refugees. With this opening, the mayor began the process of qualifying Rutland as a host city.
While most policy discussions about refugees focus on humanitarian considerations, there is increasing evidence that when actively integrated, refugees can potentially reinvigorate communities that are in decline. Cities including St Louis, Buffalo, Utica and Oklahoma City attribute the revival of declining neighborhoods in their communities to their ability to attract and retain large refugee populations. Their experience demonstrates the economic and social advantages that refugees can infuse into their newly adopted homes.
Rutland, Vermont, is also something of a test case for rural communities potentially interested in combining humanitarian and economic development motivations to recruit and assimilate large numbers of refugees.
There are parallels between Rutland and struggling rural communities in Utah. Rutland started as a small but fast-growing melting pot of many nationalities that became a thriving and cohesive community. Their past growth was largely due to an influx of immigrants that despite very real challenges, learned to work and live together. Rutland’s success was also based on its railroad hub and on highly successful marble mining. As these industries declined, so did their communities. The challenges facing Rutland are in many ways similar to the challenges facing rural towns across America.
Like Vermont, Utah has embraced support for refugees. Yet, Utah’s refugee initiatives have been largely centered in Salt Lake. With the combined support of elected leaders as well as religious and nonprofit organizations, Utah has successfully welcomed a disproportionately large number of refugees in the state.
This same coalition of community resources is the foundation for Rutland’s refugee initiative that it believes will benefit both the community and the newly arrived refugees. As Utah continues to expand its efforts to welcome and support refugees, the Rutland initiative may provide a model to expand this effort to rural communities in the Beehive State.