Today I was presenting at a conference sponsored by Vermont Alliance for Social Studies. The keynote speakers included Chris Louras, Mayor of Rutland; Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria; and the USCRI/Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program Director Amila Merdzanovic.
What they had to say was so hard to hear. But the message was so important.
First, Ambassador Ford showed photos from Syria. He showed the viral pictures that everyone has seen, of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler who washed up on the beach a little more than a year ago, and of Omran Daqneesh, the dust-covered boy sitting stunned in an orange chair, saved when his home was bombed. But Ford also showed other images:
- Bodies of people killed by Syrian police. Ford said the photo’s authenticity had been verified by the U.S. government. He said the Syrian government had killed 4 times more people than ISIS. Yet we fear the lesser evil.
- A boy being treated for chemical weapons. Ford pointed to a recent report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which showed the worst violations of chemical weapon use since World War 1.
- A map that showed comparatively how few refugees from the region the United States has taken.
Ford says he was among a group of government officials who had petitioned the government to step up the number of Syrian refugees last year from 10,000 to 100,000.
The numbers are indeed sobering.
Merdzanovic of Vermont Refugee Resettlement talked about the refugee crisis the world over, echoing numbers Ambassador Ford had quoted: more than 65 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes. Of those, 25 million are refugees, meaning they had to cross an international border to seek safety. This is a record high number. And it means that one of every 113 people on earth is a refugee.
It’s truly staggering.
She said that UNHCR has three methods of dealing with displaced people. First, they try to work with the home country to repatriate them, helping to solve the problem that sent people running in the first place. Next, they try local integration, settling them as close to the home country as possible. Finally, they work toward resettlement. She said less than 25% of all people in refugee camps are resettled. The rest live and die in the camps.
How’s that for some cheery news?
She showed us the video above. Syrians go through extra screening, more than your average refugee. On average, she says, it takes 1000 days to process one person.
Imagine that person were you. That’s more than three years of your life, just waiting to restart. And restarting is never easy. New country, new language, new customs, and maybe a less than welcoming committee meeting you.
She let us know that Vermont Refugee Resettlement is highly dependent on volunteers, and that they welcomed people to come help the cause.
Finally, Mayor Louras of Rutland came to speak. He caught a lot of flak when he pushed for his town to become a refugee resettlement community, pledging to take 100 Syrians starting in January 2017.
And I was mesmerized. He said that humanitarian issues aside, Vermont (outside Chittenden County, where I live) really needed to look at economic reasons. He said GE, the largest employer is losing 35-50 workers a year, just to retirement. The city, according to census figures, is losing 100 people each year.
Rutland, he said, has to build its workforce. And refugees is one way to do that.
He reminded us that Rutland was built on the backs of refugees: Italians, Greeks and others who come from other lands. People on one side of town called the other side “stonepeggers,” a not-so-flattering name for those of Irish descent. Detractors, he said, “have vowels at the ends of their names, but they’ve forgotten where they came from.
And there has always been “the other.” So this time is no different, except that there are many in Rutland who are ready to help. Louras said a grassroots movement started to prepare the area to accept the next group of immigrants. And it’s an economic necessity.
What an amazing idea: boosting a dying area’s economic standing by inviting more workers in. It’s been done the world over. I remember when I was a foreign exchange student in Germany, people were talking a lot about guest workers who had come from Turkey to help rebuild Germany–but then they never went home. And it was a problem for the German people who wanted “Germany for the Germans.”
In this case, Louras is asking for Rutland to embrace this new population in order to keep GE, the area’s largest employer, supplied with a fresh group of workers to replace the town’s aging population.
It’s the first time I had heard that argument. And it speaks to the people who are worried about those people who are taking our jobs. In this case, they’d be saving them.
I am so excited to see how it goes…