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U.S. Politics Anger, sadness as small Vermont city loses chance to rebuild with refugees

Newly arrived refugee Dania Khatib, 5, tours a classroom on Friday with her mother, Mahasen Boshnaq, centre rear, and father, Ahmed Khatib, right, at the Northwest Primary School in Rutland, Vt.

Lisa Rathke/The Associated Press

One morning last week, Christopher Louras was sitting in his office in downtown Rutland, Vt., when a news alert flashed across his phone. He tapped it. The story contained the draft of an executive order soon to be signed by U.S. President Donald Trump halving all refugee admissions and indefinitely barring Syrian refugees.

For months, Mr. Louras, Rutland's mayor, had worked to bring 25 Syrian families to this isolated city in central Vermont, the first official refugees in its history. Locals donated rooms full of furniture. High-school students held fundraising drives. Volunteers taught a free weekly Arabic class. And the city weathered a wrenching fight between residents eager to welcome newcomers and those who preferred to turn them away.

Two days before Mr. Trump's inauguration, the first family of Syrians arrived in Rutland. The second family arrived a day later. Now, instead of being the first of many, they will be the last. "I'm a realist," said Mr. Louras on Sunday. "It's done."

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When Mr. Louras first saw the draft of Mr. Trump's order, he recalled, he felt a sense of "desperate disappointment and sadness." But the next morning, "I woke up angry," he said. "And I have remained angry."

That anger was reflected across the country on Sunday as protests erupted for a second day. Mr. Trump's executive order, which not only stops refugee admissions for four months but bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, caused panic at airports on the weekend as travellers grappled with the unprecedented restrictions.

There was no protest in Rutland on Sunday. But a day earlier, several hundred residents gathered to express their sorrow and frustration. Here in Rutland, the arriving refugees were seen not just as an opportunity to do the right thing, but as a chance for a new start – a way to bring a group of young, diverse, hard-working families to a city struggling to rebuild.

On Sunday, some in Rutland couldn't discuss the topic without starting to cry. In other quarters, there was a sense of frank relief.

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For the small but vocal group opposed to the arrival of the refugees, Mr. Trump, from far away in Washington, succeeded where they had failed, derailing Rutland's refugees with the stroke of a pen.

"I'm glad it happened, I really am," said Allan Lefountain, 51, of Mr. Trump's executive order as he stood outside the local Wal-Mart. "I just think it was going to destroy us around here."

Once home to a thriving marble industry, Rutland has experienced a steady erosion of its population. Since 2010, the number of residents has declined 4 per cent to 16,000. The nearest major attraction is the Killington Ski Area, 26 kilometres away.

Mr. Louras, who became mayor in 2007, has worked to rejuvenate Rutland's tiny downtown, which boasts views of church steeples and snow-covered hills, and is now home to a handful of cafes, shops and restaurants.

The idea of bringing new residents to Rutland had its roots in the 2008 housing bust. Surveying vacant properties, Mr. Louras had an epiphany. "You know what we need?" he told a colleague. "Some people to fill up these god-dang neighbourhoods the way our families did at the turn of the century."

Mr. Louras's paternal grandparents were from Greece; his colleague's family came from Italy and Ireland. Rutland also absorbed immigrants from Quebec, Sweden, Poland and Hungary.

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In April of last year, Mr. Louras announced that the city would seek government certification to host refugees for the first time ever, hoping to become the first place in Vermont to welcome refugees from Syria.

He expected resistance, but he didn't expect Mr. Trump. "We became a microcosm of the country," he said. Mr. Trump "gave people licence to say things and do things they wouldn't otherwise do."

A group calling itself Rutland First sprang up to oppose the refugee plan. Some said the city needed to focus its attention on its own needy populations; others claimed Mr. Louras had launched the plan in a secretive manner. Still others voiced anti-immigrant views and anti-Muslim prejudices.

On the other side, the refugee plan attracted a group of passionate backers, who formed Rutland Welcomes. Jennie Gartner, who teaches history at the local high school and whose grandparents were German refugees, is a founding member of the group.

From a humanitarian standpoint, "I believe we should take as many as we can conceivably fit in the city," said Ms. Gartner, 37. "Selfishly, it's culture and diversity, which is something we sorely lack in Rutland."

Opponents of the plan expressed worries about security and said the city should put Rutlanders first. "I see a whole lot of people here who really need help and who just don't get it," said Michael Greene, 30, as he shopped on Sunday with his family. He pointed to the people he sees begging near the mall downtown, or who are homeless. Mr. Trump's executive order "is a good thing," he said.

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As the controversy over Mr. Trump's actions rages at a national level, nine Syrians – four adults and five children – are starting their new life in Rutland. On Sunday, they were moving out of the homes of host families and into their new apartments.

Among them are Ahmed Khatib and Mahasen Boshnaq and their three children, originally from a town outside Aleppo. Mr. Khatib told a local newspaper that he wasn't perturbed by Mr. Trump's rhetoric given the welcome he had experienced. "I think in every country, the views of the President are different from the views of the people," he said in an interview with the Rutland Herald.

Spending time with the two Syrian families has been a balm for the bitter disappointment of recent days, said Mr. Louras. "They're just like us and they're going to be successful and we're going to embrace them," he said. Being with the families affirms that "what this community has done is absolutely the right thing – no qualifications, no reservations."

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