BURLINGTON >> Two days before Thanksgiving Gov. Peter Shumlin visited a classroom of newly arrived refugees from Africa and Asia, welcoming them to Vermont and reiterating his public support for welcoming Syrian refugees into the U.S. as well.
Several of the dozen adult refugee students learning basic English at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue Tuesday morning came to the front of the class and shook the governor's hand.
Shumlin asked where they came from and if they had found work. Most had only been in the U.S. for three months they told him in halting and heavily accented English. Two men said they had jobs in local restaurants, the Skinny Pancake and Farmhouse Tap Room.
Vermont is a good place for them and their families to find work and start a new life, he told them. The state has one of the lowest unemployment rates, in part because it has a shrinking workforce and employers can't find workers quickly enough to fill vacancies.
Zephirene Kasigwa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the governor she had fled a giant fire. Kasigwa said she lost two of her children, and had not seen them in years. Because of the language barrier, it was unclear if she was separated from them or if they're deceased. She now lives and works in Burlington with one of her other children, she said.
Kasigwa's story of loss is a unifying theme for refugees "fleeing horrid situations" in their home country, Shumlin said. They come to the U.S. looking for safety and a better life, the governor told reporters afterwards, and he welcomes the opportunity to bring more refugees to Vermont in the coming year.
Officials with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program have said Vermont is likely to resettle some 350 refugees in the coming year, several of whom are likely to be Syrian. Many Syrians began fleeing in 2011 when war broke out, and have likely completed the vetting process for admittance to the U.S.
The U.S. has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrians — a tiny fraction of the 4.2 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
To date the U.S. has accepted fewer than 2,000 refugees, according to an official with the local resettlement agency. None have arrived in Vermont thus far, they said.
Europe has already accepted 93,000 Syrians, according to a New York Times report. United Nations statistics show that Turkey, which borders Syria, has taken in 1.5 million refugees and is expected to allow 200,000 more into the country before the end of the year.
A warm welcome from a cold place
Shumlin told the class of newly arrived refugees that they may have resettled in one of the coldest states, but he assured them they would get one of the warmest welcomes of anywhere in the country.
At least 30 governors have said they would oppose allowing Syrian refugees to resettle in their states amid fears that some could be terrorists. Those fears were catalyzed by the Nov. 13 attacks that left 130 dead in Paris.
The Islamic State, a terrorist group and self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate operating in Iraq and Syria, quickly claimed credit for the gruesome attacks. European investigators discovered a Syrian passport near the body of a dead attacker, which authorities now believe is fake. Most of the other attackers have been identified as European citizens.
Still, the attacks galvanized a strong anti-immigrant sentiment already evident in the campaign rhetoric of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
It's "shameful" for so many of his fellow governors to posture against Syrian refugees, Shumlin said. "There is a certain amount of bigotry and hatred associated with the message 'we're not going to let you in here,' and I think that some governors are using the process as a way of saying 'no,'" he told reporters after visiting with the students.
The governor reiterated that the screening process for refugees from Syria or anywhere else to come into the U.S. is more rigorous than anywhere else in the world, and the public has nothing to fear from refugees. Unlike asylum seekers entering Europe directly from war-torn Syria, the refugees that would come to the U.S. undergo lengthy vetting by multiple federal agencies.
Shumlin also chided Vermont's Republican gubernatorial candidates for "parroting" the national Republicans. Accepting refugees and immigrants is a core tenet of American life, and as leaders, politicians need to "stand up for what is right," Shumlin said.
Both Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Shelburne businessman Bruce Lisman have said the U.S. should stop Syrian refugee resettlement until the public can be assured that the federal process is working properly. Scott has attempted to soften his position, saying Vermont should continue to welcome refugees and asserting that immigration is a core American value.
Asked how he would respond to people who say Vermont and the U.S. should focus on ensuring the wellbeing of people who are already citizens before offering asylum and aid to refugees, Shumlin said the two aren't mutually exclusive.
"We are focused on the plight of struggling Vermonters," he said, "When you say to me 'focus on Vermonters because many of them are hurting' I say 'that's exactly what we're doing.' There's no reason why we can't do two things at the same time."