Love in a time of hate: How students can welcome refugees

By Greta Solsaa, Student Area Coordinator, Amnesty International USA

“During this time, when many governments including the United States are not upholding human rights, it was beautiful to see how grassroots activism and perseverance can make a difference in the local community.”

When the former mayor of Rutland announced that my community was going to accept one-hundred Syrian refugees three years ago, I, along with my family and friends, were delighted to hear that Rutland was moving toward becoming a more accepting and diverse place to live. Soon it became clear, however, that many people in Rutland did not regard the news with the same optimism that those in my circle did. There were bigoted undertones and resistance of other members of the community about the decision to make Rutland a resettlement city.

A week after the announcement, I attended the city meeting alongside many students and teachers to show our support for refugee resettlement. Though most at that meeting came in support, there were a few people who stood at the podium to denounce the mayor’s actions and express their fears concerning the Syrians coming. The comment that struck me was from an older man who said that Islam was a cult. Not only was this statement about Islam motivated by fear, but I knew it to be false.

With the prospect of the refugees coming, members of the community formed Rutland Welcomes. In backlash to Rutland Welcomes, Rutland First formed to picket with signs of hate and write several letters to the federal government stating that Rutland was not prepared to welcome Syrian refugees. Members of Rutland Welcomes were concerned that these public displays of bigotry could threaten the possibility of Rutland becoming a resettlement site at all.

This was all happening with the backdrop of the 2016 election when there seemed to be a rise of inflammatory comments, lies, and hate infecting the whole country, not just my small town of Rutland. Major news sites such as the Washington Post and NPR covered the situation in Rutland as a microcosm of the discord occurring in the United States. Once school started in the fall, we rejoiced to learn that resettlement had been approved.

Over the year that the Syrian families have been here, they have integrated into the Rutland community without having to relinquish their culture. The parents have jobs and the school-aged children are enrolled in public school. The very presence of these Syrians in Rutland, who are now valuable assets to the community, dispels myths that Muslims are terrorists or that refugees are going to be an undue burden on the economy.

In the spring of this year, my Amnesty student group decided to pass a Refugees Welcome resolution in Rutland, a symbolic statement declaring that refugees are welcome in our community. We were able to introduce the resolution swiftly and have it motioned to be discussed in the economic development committee where our student group answered questions about the resolution in Rutland.

One member of the subcommittee expressed the belief that the resolution would be harmful to the community and that a vote for it would be against their constituents’ desires. However, other Aldermen said that it would be economically and morally important for Rutland to pass this resolution to reaffirm Rutland as a welcoming community. The resolution passed in the subcommittee 4 to 1.

The journey was not over, however, as the resolution was then to be brought before the full Board. This was a numbers game, and we were pretty confident we had enough votes to pass the resolution, but just barely. As the resolution was brought up on the agenda the Alderman, Melissa Humphrey, who was a great support throughout the process, motioned for a roll call vote. If an Alderman had the gall to vote against a resolution upholding basic human rights, then let it be public.

One by one, a “yes” was uttered by each Alderman. Not only had the resolution passed, it had passed unanimously.

It was later discovered that two of the aldermen who had voted in favor would not sign the resolution, but it was still a massive success. No longer would it be acceptable to dehumanize and reject refugees.

Though the resolution is largely symbolic, it will pave the way for more legal actions to take place to make Rutland a more welcoming place to live, learn, and work.

During this time, when many governments including the United States are not upholding human rights, it was beautiful to see how grassroots activism and perseverance can make a difference in the local community.

I know that if people in Rutland and around the world through Amnesty International or other organizations continue to strive for human rights, we will begin to reshape our world for the better.

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To get involved in Amnesty International’s movement for Refugee Rights, visit our website and sign up to learn more.

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