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Vermont Mayor Seeks Syrian Refugees To Help Boost Small Town's Economy


Now to Vermont, and a town where the mayor is seeking Syrian refugees. Just last week, the first two of possibly 25 refugee families arrived in Rutland. It's a blue collar town of about 16,000 people. Refugee advocates worry that the Trump administration could suspend refugee programs at any time, just as Trump promised to do during his campaign. Some in Rutland would favor that, while others say the town needs the infusion of diversity. Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: The first two families arrived quietly at night - four adults, five kids, all exhausted - we're told. The media was not invited, and reporters were asked to be sensitive to the family's privacy. Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, who's been a champion of resettlement, helped both families move in.

CHRISTOPHER LOURAS: As our new neighbors - fleeing for their lives, coming to a new home a half a world away to rebuild those lives - they needed to understand that they were welcome.

KECK: Louras applied on behalf off of Rutland to receive refugees, beating out several other Vermont towns to do it. The local high school is planning a Syrian dinner to help introduce the families, but there remains an uncomfortable divide over bringing Syrians to town.


LOURAS: You get a sense of it at the local farmer's market, where vendors sell everything from kombucha and winter vegetables to steaming mulled cider. Some worry about the vetting process and the cost of resettling refugees. Fifty-one-year-old Michael Spafford took a break from selling fudge to admit he's torn by the issue.

MICHAEL SPAFFORD: I get that America is open arms to all the people from different countries and that's how we're a melting pot. What I'm concerned about is I know people who are living in the woods because they're poor and they're homeless, and I know veterans who aren't getting proper care. Something Donald Trump did say the other day - America is giving money out to so many other countries. I can't help but think we should be taking care of our own first.

KECK: Refugee proponents, and there are many in Rutland, counter that it's not an either or, but it's a debate that's been raging for months. Back in April, when Mayor Louras announced the plan, many were surprised - Rutland hasn't taken in refugees before. The mayor said helping Syrians was the right thing to do, but he also believes refugees could help solve a problem. Rutland's population is shrinking. Lyle Jepson, director of the Rutland Economic Development Council (ph), says the city's population is expected to decline another 10 to 16 percent by 2030. Even more worrisome - most of that drop will be among those under age 50.

LYLE JEPSON: What that means is we're entering a crisis period. We're aging, we're retiring, we're living much longer, and there are fewer people coming in to replace us.

KECK: Jepson points to data gathered by the Vermont Chamber Foundation that says the entire state will need nearly 11,000 new employees a year until 2040 to replace retirees and fill new jobs.

JEPSON: We hear people say our children are leaving because there are no jobs here. We need to change that narrative because there are jobs here.

KECK: He says young motivated refugees would be a welcome part of the talent pool in Rutland. The first newcomers include people who are multi-lingual, one has a degree in French literature. Depending on their skills, he says they could find work with local hotels, nursing homes, the nearby Killington Ski Resort or local GE plant.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, dill pickles. Thank you.

KECK: Back at the farmer's market, Josh Squire wraps up a sale. The 32-year-old moved to Rutland from Delaware, which he describes as much more culturally diverse. Rutland, he says, needs more of that.

JOSH SQUIRE: Different ideas can spur a new business, and that new business brings in money for the economy. So having, you know, even a couple more hundred people in our little town, it's going to make a big difference for us.

KECK: But he worries that if the U.S. scales back its refugee programs, the first two Syrian families here could be the last. For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland, Vt.


Nina has been reporting for VPR since 1996, primarily focusing on the Rutland area. An experienced journalist, Nina covered international and national news for seven years with the Voice of America, working in Washington, D.C., and Germany. While in Germany, she also worked as a stringer for Marketplace. Nina has been honored with two national Edward R. Murrow Awards: In 2006, she won for her investigative reporting on VPR and in 2009 she won for her use of sound. She began her career at Wisconsin Public Radio.