Nan Dubin, of East Wallingford, Vt., reads a conversation prompt to Mahasen Boshnaq, who came with her family to Rutland as a refu­gee from Syria in January 2017. Dubin is one of the volunteers who have worked with Boshnaq’s family and two other refugee families since their arrival. (Sarah Priestap/For The Washington Post)

Mahasen Boshnaq sat at a table in the high school auditorium, smiling and trying her best to follow the English conversation among the women around her as they discussed her daughter's reading needs.

Boshnaq, her husband and three children were supposed to be among a group of 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Rutland by this point, had everything gone according to plan. There would have been more children dashing between the tables at the potluck dinner tonight, more Arabic in the conversation, and maybe more than one person would have brought stuffed grape leaves for the buffet.

But Rutland, the tiny Vermont city that drew national attention during the 2016 presidential campaign for its plan to accept 25 to 30 refu­gee families, is the resettlement hub that never was. Boshnaq's family and nine other Syrian and Iraqi refugees are the only ones who made it last year to this economically distressed community along the edge of the Appalachian Trail.

Many of Rutland's residents, led by then-Mayor Christopher Louras, wanted the refugees here. It was a moral duty, they said, and a way to revitalize and diversify a fading city that is 96 percent white.

But many others rallied against them, accusing the mayor of pursuing the plan in secret, worrying that it would be too costly and fearful that Muslim refugees — an unknown entity in central Vermont — would somehow make Rutland less American and less safe.

That the three families made it represents victory and failure for each side of the debate. But ultimately it was an order from Washington that decided the fate of the others.

Saturday marked one year since a Trump administration executive order banned refugees and the citizens of seven majority Muslim countries, including Iraq and Syria, from entering the United States. Though federal judges within days halted the order, criticized by civil rights groups and Democrats as a "Muslim ban," the administration never resumed overseas interviews of refu­gee applicants.

And those who did trickle into the United States in the months of court battles over whether the ban could stay were refugees who had neared the end of a sometimes years-long vetting process.

Rutland's final refu­gee family arrived in June, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ban's partial implementation. The court is still considering a third iteration of the policy.


The city of Rutland, Vt., on a brisk January afternoon. (Sarah Priestap/For The Washington Post)

Hosting refugees in Rutland had been a contentious idea from the start, tearing open the political tensions of this close-knit city at a time of bitter national debate over race, religion and immigration.

Neighbors shouted at each other during city meetings. They accused each other of being horrible, of being un-American: Some called the people who wanted the refugees liars and traitors, some called the people who didn't want them racists and bigots.

Louras said Rutland could and should provide a safe haven to refugees fleeing war. He said they would breathe new life into this city of church steeples, grand porches and 150-year-old buildings, a onetime marble mining gem that has been steadily shrinking.

But to others, Louras and the resettlement agency were arrogant and deceitful. They were accused of developing the plan without consulting city stakeholders, of being motivated by money, of willfully ignoring the concerns of local constituents.

These critics asked: How would Rutland, with its dying shopping mall and festering opioid crisis, possibly absorb 100 newcomers who would require housing, jobs and English language training? How would they fit into this homogenous community set amid the rolling farmland and nearby ski slopes? Some warned of more nefarious outcomes, too, echoing the Trump administration's concerns: the refugees were not vetted well enough, they said, they could be terrorists.

"I think a lot of people saw the sheer numbers they were talking about here as a real culture change," said Don Chioffi, a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran and a retired politician and businessman. He said his biggest concerns have been the lack of transparency in the process, followed by cost, culture and security. "Where's the mosque? Who's the imam going to be? What sect is the imam going to be? What stuff is going to be preached in the mosque?"


Don Chioffi, 73, of Rutland, speaks about his opposition to the Rutland refugee resettlement plan at Seward Family Restaurant. (Sarah Priestap/For The Washington Post)

By the time the third Syrian family arrived here in June 2017, Louras had lost his job, defeated by an alderman who had previously failed twice to unseat him. It was a landslide election viewed by many as a referendum on refu­gee resettlement.

Marsha Cassel, a high school teacher and member of the Rutland Welcomes activist group, had received hate mail and weathered attempts at her firing.

Tim Cook, a physician and Army reservist who had helped form the opposition group Rutland First, had been "de-friended" by people on Facebook and dumped by liberal women he met through Match.com. Strangers found his doctor page on Google and wrote disparaging reviews of a clinic they had never visited.

Both sides felt misunderstood and misrepresented, and a year after the ban was implemented, there is a lingering sadness and bitterness here, even in the absence of debate. The refugees so far have presented zero threats to anyone's safety, and there have been no reports of refugees facing harassment. They have tried to quietly blend in, and to a large extent they have succeeded.

"Who won?" Louras said this week. "The 14 Syrians."

They are safe, the refugees' advocates say. They are happy. The children are thriving.

But some, like Patricia Alonso, the school system's English Language Learners instructor, worry about how lonely it is to be the only three refu­gee families for miles around, knowing that no more are going to follow.


Former Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras stands inside the tobacco shop owned by his family's company, Sam Frank Inc., which he has been helping to run since he lost his reelection bid. (Sarah Priestap/For The Washington Post)

"It's hard not having family here," Boshnaq said in her native Arabic. The lifestyle is different. The bitter New England winter is different. "But we're getting used to it."

Few others in this area speak Arabic or can visualize the Syria these families left behind. Friends and relatives remain abroad. It's an hour and half drive to the nearest mosque.

"Will Vermont be the long-term place for them?" Alonso asked. "Or will they want to be around more Muslim people? My thought is: How can we make sure they stay?"

Rutland's refu­gee advocates also are grappling with the question of what comes next.

Rutland had been approved by the federal government as a resettlement site for Syrians and Iraqis. But just 34 Syrians had arrived in the United States by January of this year. And the State Department has instructed resettlement agencies to consolidate their operations and "zero out" sites like Rutland that would otherwise receive very few, said Amila Merdzanovic, the director of Vermont's refu­gee resettlement program.

Merdzanovic's organization, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told its local allies last week that there would be no more refugees resettled in Rutland this fiscal year. The furniture, bedding, coats and kitchen supplies — enough for 100 people — that Rutland Welcomes volunteers had stockpiled a year ago remain largely untouched in storage rooms across the city.


Supplies intended for 85 additional Syrian and Iraqi refugees have been stored unused at the Rutland Area Food Coop for more than a year. (Sarah Priestap/For The Washington Post)

At the potluck this week, children skipped around the room, reading the English conversation-starters that the high school "Rutland Neighbors" club had written on place mats. "Do you like fashion?" a 10-year-old Syrian girl asked, reading one to her father. "I like fashion!"

Boshnaq giggled when her 2½ -year-old stuck his nametag on a teacher's shoulder, and cooed over a friend's baby.

Some of the adult refugees have obtained driver's licenses and are thinking about furthering their education. They shop for produce at the local Price Chopper and watch with bemusement as neighbors teach their children how to sled. The 10-year-old's father, formerly an accountant in Damascus, now rises every morning at 3:30 to go to work at a bakery.

But the refugees remain largely offstage in Rutland's evolving saga, and even some of the families' strongest supporters have been hesitant to probe too deeply about the homes they left behind and the horrors they witnessed. The refugees don't want to talk to reporters or address town hall meetings, Merdzanovic said. They don't want to speak for a war-ravaged Syria, she said. They don't want to be the symbols of the national debate or the small town struggle.

"I think it's just wanting not to be in the spotlight," said Morgan Denehy, the resettlement staffer who now spends half his week in Rutland. "I think it's just wanting to go about their lives."