Vt. Gov. Reiterates Support for Refugees

Advocates for refugees have faced new pressures in the wake of the attacks on Paris

Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, reiterated his support for refugees Tuesday, telling new arrivals to the United States that he believes they will make meaningful contributions to Vermont socially, and as part of the workforce.

Shumlin visited two introductory English classes held at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, organized by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Several of the students, from countries including Nepal, the Congo, and Somalia, told Shumlin they have found work in the Burlington area, but that they want to work on their English to help them excel.

"They work hard to learn the language, to be identified as American, and not 'less American' than anybody," said Ashraf Alamatouri, a Syrian-born coordinator of the English language classes offered through the Refugee Resettlement Program.

Advocates for refugees have faced new pressures in the wake of the attacks on Paris, with demonstrators, more than half of the nation's governors, and some candidates for president expressing concern that people who want to do the U.S. harm could potentially sneak in with Syrian refugees.

Large waves of people have been fleeing Syria for several years, due to civil war. However, the numbers of Syrian refugees have been increasing in recent months, due to added violence from the terror group ISIS and to deepening concerns over the country's safety, stability, and infrastructure.

President Obama has said he would like to see the United States accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.

"We don't want to fling the doors open and hope for the best," added H. Brooke Paige, an organizer of a "Vermonters First" rally last Friday, which faced opposition from a far-larger crowd who gathered on the lawn to voice support for Syrian refugees.

Amila Merdzanovic, who told necn she came to the U.S. as a refugee from Bosnia, now directs the non-profit Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. She insists refugees are the most scrutinized group of people seeking entry into the country.

"We know that the system works," Merdzanovic said. "The vetting process--the security process--to come into the United States as a refugee is very rigorous."

Tuesday, Gov. Shumlin agreed that refugees are closely scrutinized by the nation's top security agencies.

"I feel very, very strongly that the governors who are saying 'no' to Syrian refugees, who are leaving horrid, horrid circumstances, are being heartless at a time we should have big hearts," Shumlin told reporters after meeting with the English language students.

Merdzanovic said in this fiscal year, 350 refugees are expected to come to Vermont. She said that number that could include some from Syria.

Ashraf Alamatouri, who said he faced persecution in Syria before coming to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar, strongly condemned ISIS, the terror group that has held some territory in Syria.

"They hate democracy," Alamatouri said of ISIS. "They hate peaceful people."

Alamatouri said he hopes that a broad coalition of people in Syria, including its many minority groups, can come together and work over the long term to improve conditions in Syria and strive for peace. "I hope the best for the Syrian people," Alamatouri said. 

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