Student newcomers to Rutland: 'We're just human'

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RUTLAND — The 15-year-old locally born high school freshman is dressed like a typical American student in jeans, flip-flops and a T-shirt as pink as her nail polish. But back when her elementary-grade classmates first learned her name, Fatima Hussnane was seen as something else.

"Whenever the anniversary of 9/11 rolled around, the looks and talk were absolute horror," recalls the proud daughter of a Pakistani Muslim father and a native Vermonter mother. "I remember one boy told me, 'You need to tell your people to stop attacking the U.S.' Like I have 'my people' on speed dial. Others asked me, 'Were you there?' I was 1 year old in 2001. How am I responsible for all of that?"

For a while, Hussnane avoided school on Sept. 11. This academic year, she transferred to Rutland's private, parochial Mount St. Joseph Academy, where she has found an unusually diverse and understanding set of classmates from around the county, country and globe.

Happy ending? It seemed so. Then Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras recently announced a plan for the city to host 100 Syrian refugees — "more than anywhere else in New England," The Boston Globe reports — spurring some residents to complain and others to call for a citywide vote.

"Why bring problems that we don't need into our community?" one man wrote in a letter to the editor.

"What better place than a relatively small town in a small state for terrorists to quietly set up shop to begin destroying this country from within?" one woman added in another.

For the small world of racially and religiously eclectic MSJ students already settled in a community built by immigrants, it's all a bit confusing.

"If I could, I would have stayed home. That's where my family and friends are," says Mauranne Geffrard, a 17-year-old senior from earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "But some people don't have a choice. If you were in the situation where you or your children were struggling, wouldn't you want a chance to have a better life?"

Mount St. Joseph

Back in 1882 when, for one brief shining moment, Rutland surpassed Burlington as Vermont's most populous city, the Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph established their namesake academy, which went on to educate a student body of as many as 600 students in ninth through 12th grade in the 1960s.

But as Rutland has since lagged in population — the state's longtime second-largest community fell to third in 2000 and fifth in 2010, according to the census — MSJ has seen its enrollment dip to a cozy but concerning 70.

To stay alive, the school is opening its doors to students from outside its traditional borders. Consider Rain He, a 17-year-old sophomore from Guangxi, China. Yearning to study in the United States as well as see snow, he typed a few keywords into Google and discovered www.msjvermont.org.

"I like this school," he says, "because it's small and friendly."

That sentiment is echoed by Geffrard and 17-year-old fellow seniors Kevin Alexandre, of Port-au-Prince, and Barryn Shark, of New York City. All are shuttling quietly between classes and Rutland host families as residents noisily argue over whether they should let outsiders in.

MSJ has experience with such debate. In 2012, the school wound up in The New York Times when it welcomed basketball-playing students from the Bronx, turning around a losing team and a half-dozen lives but triggering dissention about whether it was depriving locals of court time.

"The last line in our mission statement is to create a just world, and we do that through providing opportunity," the Times quoted a school official at the time. "The guys who have come from away, they've experienced a lot of stuff in their life; they've seen a lot of stuff."

MSJ no longer is squabbling over such matters. With fewer players, its former state champion Division I football team will merge this fall with Poultney High School's Division III program. But its small personalized classes are becoming a big draw, with next fall's enrollment set to surge by 30 percent to upward of 100.

"Going to school here is great. You know everybody," says Shark, who'll graduate this week to study computer science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Geffrard, for her part, appreciates that because MSJ is so culturally diverse, "you can't really tell that you're different. You get to define yourself. The color of your skin doesn't matter, your religion doesn't matter, nothing else matters. It's what you can bring to this world."

Geffrard is off to Suffolk University in Boston to study law. She's confident that if Syrian refugees take her place in Rutland, they'll eventually fit in.

"People have stereotypes," she says, "but when we come here, we change the way people think. We're just human. Deep down, at the end of the day, we're all the same. We want to do great things. We want to leave our mark on the world. That's why we're here."

Many Rutland County residents agree. About 150 recently attended a meeting to form a "Rutland Welcomes" group, while more than 1,000 have joined a related Facebook page "of like-minded individuals who wish to create a warm, safe, inviting atmosphere for the refugees arriving."

But critics, while not having made themselves known in such numbers, nonetheless are loud. At a local Board of Aldermen meeting last week, one woman sparked applause when she expressed fear that refugees would impose Islamic law on the city.

Hussnane bristles at such comments.

"Do you really think refugees want to be here?" the local student says. "They don't, but what other choice do they have? Their homes are literally getting burned and bombed to the ground. I can't imagine watching my family starve and I can't do anything about it. They can't just let themselves die."

Hussnane speaks on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, when many of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims will fast during daylight hours to purify the soul and receive a firsthand reminder of what those who suffer — be they poor or homeless or fleeing persecution — face daily.

In the short term, Hussnane will travel with her family to the nearest mosque some two hours away in Albany, New York. In the long term, she's planning on becoming a child psychologist — an interest inspired by a younger sister with autism.

"Along with all of the comments about my faith, I also get a lot of comments about her," the teenager says. "A lot of people are scared and don't understand. I want to make the world more aware it's not something to be afraid of. We're from different places, but we're all in the same world."


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