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Rutland Herald: City refugees cited on floor of US House

February 1, 2017
In The News

On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., spoke of the two Syrian refugee families living in Rutland to highlight his opposition to President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order.

The order bans refugees from entering the U.S. for the next four months and Syrian refugees indefinitely. Before the order, Rutland was expected to accept about 100 Syrian refugees, but only two families arrived in the city before the order took affect. Many city residents opposed the resettlement plan.

Last week, Welch met the refugee families and Tuesday he spoke about them from the House floor.

“I wish to introduce President Trump to two Syrian families who made it to safety in Rutland, just a week before he slammed the door,” Welch said.

“The Alhallak family is from Damascus. The Khatib family is from Aleppo,” he said. “These families survived a home being bombed, al- Qaida and ISIS terrorists, and the brutal violence of the Assad regime. They found temporary refuge in Turkey. They have now found permanent freedom in Vermont.”

Welch, along with the other members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders, promised Monday to oppose the executive order. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott — a Republican, unlike Welch, Leahy and Sanders — also promised the state would “push back” against the order.

Welch said he made his statement Tuesday during open-floor time in the House and not during a debate on the executive order. But his statement and Welch’s comments about the Syrian families and their presence in Rutland will become part of the Congressional Record.

Welch said from the floor that the families were good people who “endured all of these hardships to do what all parents strive to do — protect their children from harm.”

‘People next door’

Later Tuesday, Welch said in an interview he was scheduled to meet with the Syrian families before the executive order was signed. He said he wanted to meet the new arrivals to Vermont in anticipation of a possible ban on Syrian immigrants.

“The talk in the paper about refugees is so abstract,” he said. “When you meet them, it’s like meeting the people next door. They’re very gentle, very intelligent. You kind of melt away while meeting these beautiful, wellbehaved, well-taken-care-of children and then you realize what they had to endure to get to Rutland.”

Welch said the personal contact was one of the reasons his comments on the House floor included his wish that Trump could meet the families.

“When you meet them, all of your abstract concepts (disappear) about security and vetting and ‘Are they safe?’” he said. “Really, your response to these people is how happy you are that they now have a shot at freedom in Rutland.”

Welch said in the interview he hoped that if Trump met refugees like the ones in Rutland, he would “try to find a way of helping people who are safe in helping themselves.”

However, Welch said the message he was trying to send was not just about the families, but about Rutland, a city he said he admired for its response to the possibility of welcoming Syrian refugees.

“Rutland had a very, very legitimate debate where folks raised the questions of, ‘Can we afford this? How’s it going to affect our schools?’ and ‘Has there been proper vetting?’” he said. “Those are fair questions and that was debated in Rutland.”

Welch went on, “But in Rutland, there was no debate that said, ‘Christians, yes. Muslims, no.’ That’s what’s been injected into this national debate by President Trump.”

He said he was proud of Rutland for engaging in “rugged debate” over the issue. He said he came away from watching those discussions believing many in Rutland weren’t very rich but were very generous.

Welch said he was encouraged by the stance taken by people like Scott and Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, who led the plan to bring refugees to Rutland.

“We have a tradition in Vermont for standing up for civil rights and opportunity when it’s threatened,” Welch said. “It’s understandable how fearful people are about what’s going on in the Middle East, but it doesn’t mean we should compromise our constitutional rights and the freedom of religion.”