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Syria's Suffering Families

Rutland, Vermont’s Only Syrian to Neighbors: Give Refugees a Chance

In Rutland, Vermont, Mike Kalil is in the eye of the storm over resettling Syrian refugees.

He has lived quietly for 16 years in the proud town that once was called the Marble City when its quarries were hopping but now contends with drugs and crime and low wages like so many New England towns.

Kalil became a successful real estate agent. He married and had two children. He's now a pillar of the community.

Syrian immigrant Mike Kalil has lived for years in Rutland, Vermont, where a small but vocal group is fighting a plan to resettled 100 Syrian refugees in their town. Courtesy Mike Kalil

But then Rutland made headlines this summer when angry residents rose up to oppose the mayor's push to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in the city. It was all the more shocking because it is Vermont, the home state of independent firebrand Bernie Sanders and a perceived bastion of progressivism.

So now Kalil is speaking out — gently and respectfully — both in defense of the Syrians and the city he loves.

That's because the affable real-estate agent the town knows as Mike was named Mohammad by his parents. And he's originally from Aleppo, the Syrian city that has been ravaged in the ongoing civil war that's torn his homeland apart.

"I would call myself a Syrian-American of Kurdish descent," Kalil told NBC News. "I have a couple of nephews who are refugees in Germany. They fled to Greece from Turkey by raft. My wife's sister did the same thing. She's also in Germany."

But Rutland is Kalil's home. He feels protective even of the people who have demanded that Mayor Christopher Louras' proposal to resettle Syrians in the city be put to a public vote.

"People in town here are kindhearted, good people," Kalil, 54, said. "Nobody discriminated against me for being Muslim or Syrian. I never experienced that at all."

But given the national political climate and the fear of terrorism stoked by people like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and other GOP politicians, Kalil said he was not surprised that some objected to the Syrian refugees.

"Some people worry about people with a different heritage, they worry about refugees turning to terrorism," he said. "I understand. But at the end of the day I truly believe that once they meet [the Syrians] they'll understand they are just regular folks running from a bad situation, people who want to raise their children in peace."

Kalil arrived in the U.S. — Boston, to be exact — back in 1980. He attended Northeastern University. And like the Greek, Italian and French immigrants who preceded him, Kalil was drawn to Rutland by the prospect of work and a better life.

"My friends own a real estate company and asked me to start with them and I've been here since 2000," he said.

The years that followed were good ones, both personally and professionally. "I got my wife [from Syria] over in 2010," said Kalil, a proud father of two children ages 4 and 2.

And even though they were the only Muslims in town and the closest mosque is 75 miles to the north in Colchester, Vermont, the Kalils felt at home.

"We're the only ones in the county that I know of," he said. "And I know a lot of people."

Louras, the city's mayor, said Kalil is "extremely well-known, extremely well-respected." He recalled how at a recent City Council meeting one woman got up to protest against the Syrians and then said, "except Mike, he's a nice guy, he's not like them."

Rutland, Vt., Mayor Chris Louras
Mayor Chris Louras pauses outside City Hall in Rutland, Vt., May 7, 2016. Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe via Getty Images

The rancor in Rutland erupted in April when Louras unveiled a plan he'd hammered out with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to bring 100 Syrian refugees to the city of about 16,000 starting in October.

"While I speak loudly and ad nauseam about embracing a diverse culture and embracing a new wave of immigrants, this is really great from an economic and cultural perspective for a city that has been in decline for 45 years," said Louras, who is a Republican.

Louras is himself the grandson of a Greek immigrant who had fled Ottoman oppression when he came to Rutland in 1906.

"These are also individuals fleeing a desperate situation," he said of the Syrians.

But many in Rutland do not see it that way.

"We just can't afford this," Timothy Cook, a physician and one of the leaders of the Rutland First group who said the city is already contending with a spate of drug overdoses, a sputtering economy and poverty. "To bring in 100 Syrian refugees just doesn't make economic sense. The cost of resettling them here is going to raise our property taxes 35 to 40 percent."

And that would be the case even if the refugees were French-Canadian, he said.

"It's not a Muslim issue," said Cook. "I've been deployed with the armed forces in the Middle East five times. I've worked with Muslims. I've lived with Muslims. They're good people as individuals."

But for some in Rutland, it is a Muslim issue.

While Vermont is a blue state, Rutland has a red streak. In the Republican primary, many voters here backed Trump, who has called for a total ban on Muslim immigration. And Dave Trapeni, another Rutland First leader, echoed Trump in his interview with NBC News.

"They aren't like other immigrants, they want to change our Constitution and bring in Sharia law," he said.

Trapeni said he knows Kalil and has no problem with him personally. It's the other Syrians that worry him. He doesn't believe the feds will be able to weed out the potential terrorists. He fears the rest will be a drain on taxpayers and on the local economy.

"Don't get me wrong, they're not all bad," he said. "But I like to say it's like you have a jar of M & M's and 10 of them are laced with arsenic. Are you going to grab them and eat them? I personally don't want to take that chance."

Some of the Rutland city alderman complained that Louras had worked out an arrangement with VRRP chief Amila Merdzanovic without consulting them. And when they couldn't find the votes to place the Syrian question on a ballot for the voters to decide, they sent a 171-page petition to the U.S. State Department asking them to suspend the plan.

Merdzanovic, herself a refugee from Bosnia who has lived in Vermont for 21 years, said if the feds approve their application, the first Syrians will start arriving in Rutland next year.

"The opposition we are seeing is a small but vocal group," she told NBC News. "The amount of support and organizing we have seen in Rutland way surpasses the opposition. The wonderful residents of Rutland have stepped up."

Vermont has a long history of welcoming refugees, and there are thriving communities of immigrants from the Congo, Burma, Bhutan, Iraq and Somalia in Burlington and Winooski.

U.S. Naturalization Ceremony In Rutland, Vermont
An unidentified member of the Honor Guard of the American Legion salutes as the National Anthem is played during a naturalization ceremony for 25 people at the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont in Rutland, Vt., in Nov. 2015. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

"Vermont is aging and losing population," Merdzanovic said. "But walk through downtown Burlington and it looks like Montreal and parts of New York City. That is the direction we should be headed in."

For his part, Kalil said the debate roiling his adopted city is as American as can be.

"Everybody's entitled to their opinions and that's the beauty of this country," he said. "I may not agree with them, but I respect them. Some friends of mine are not for [the Syrian resettlement]. But they are still my friends."