Syrian refugee issue draws protesters, supporters

MONTPELIER – Security or compassion?

Those two positions drew approximately 50 people to the State House on Friday in demonstrations in opposition to and in support of Vermont accepting refugees from Syria.

The demonstrations — overwhelmingly in favor of allowing Syrian refugees in Vermont — follow a statement earlier this week from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who said Vermont would welcome refugees from Syria, a position that finds him at odds with many other state governors who have said they did not want refugees from the war-torn failed state following recent attacks in Beirut and Paris that left nearly 200 people dead.

Protest sign

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

A protest sign on display at the State House Friday, Nov. 20. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

In a  subsequent interview with The Vermont Press Bureau, Shumlin said rejecting the refugees would not reflect the values of the nation.

“It is not the way that we as Americans and as Vermonters promote a free and just society that is the foundation for the greatest democracy in the world,” Shumlin said. “Whenever we are overcome by fear and hatred, America loses.”

Shumlin has sharply criticized the positions staked out by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, both Republican candidates for governor, who called for a halt in allowing Syrian refugees in Vermont until the vetting process could be verified and explained to Vermonters.

Shumlin’s statements drew the ire of H. Brooke Paige, a Washington resident who has declared his intention to run for governor, and in response, Paige organized a protest Friday that drew just a handful of supporters.

“We’re not anti-immigrant,” Paige said. “We all came here from somewhere else. What it’s about is being anti-Mr. Shumlin’s boisterous rhetoric where he says we have lots of resources. It’s sheer insanity.”

Sign at Friday's protest of Syrian refugees coming to Vermont

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

A sign at Friday’s protest of Syrian refugees coming to Vermont. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Paige, and the few who joined him, discussed what they see as an inability of the United States to properly vet refugees to ensure they are not potential terrorists.

“Mr. Shumlin talks about the good, hard-working Syrians who want to come here. How does he know they are good and hard-working when he doesn’t know who the individual people actually are?” Paige asked. “I think the United States should not be accepting any refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran until we are able to regain our foothold to properly vet these people.”

Rick Lawrence, of Richmond, also expressed concern that President Barack Obama’s plan to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees could lead to potential terrorists entering the country.

Rick Lawrence

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

Rick Lawrence, of Richmond

“ISIS and al-Quadea, are very shrewd. They are like cockroaches,” Lawrence said. “They have a way of living and sneaking around and infiltrating Vermont. I honestly believe they are already in this country and it’s just a matter of time before we have another attack here.”

James Burrows, of Barre, said he was concerned with both security and the cost of accepting refugees.

“Do we want another Paris attack in Vermont? And, after they come to Vermont they can go anywhere,” Burrows said. “I had friends who were Bosnian refugees who were nice, friendly people, but we can’t afford to help everyone.”

While Paige’s protest drew as many as 10 people, a counter-protest drew as many as 40 people who came out to show their support for Syrian refugees.

Dan Thorington, of Williamstown

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

Dan Thorington, of Williamstown. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“I’m standing on the side of love against ignorance,” said Bronwyn Fryer, of Montpelier, who expressed displeasure with the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates this week, some of whom called for the United States to only accept Christian refugees, or require every Muslim to register with the government.

“It’s stuff we haven’t heard since World War II,” Fryer said. “We’re a better country than that. We’re a better people than that. We’re a better state than that. There’s no place for that type of discussion.”

“We need to get out and be the opposite side of the argument, so to speak, favoring immigration where we can, favoring relief and opposing war strikes or troops on the ground,” said Alice Evans, of Waitsfield.

Crystal Zevon, of Barnet

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

Crystal Zevon, of Barnet. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“I don’t know these people,” Evans said of the people protesting Syrian refugees, “and I don’t want to abuse another opinion, but the Republican candidates for president are whooping this thing up into real bigotry and racism, and it’s not only unreasonable, it’s unfair and un-American.”

Lawrence did not have harsh words for the people who showed up to support Syrian refugees, and said he was acting in their interests.

“I love those people, and I feel we need to basically stand up and protect them from their own demise,” Lawrence said.

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