A crowd of over 200 people gathered outside of Burlington City Hall on Monday, holding candles and handmade signs to rally in support of Syrian refugees. The event, organized by East District City Councilor Selene Colburn, was held before a council vote on a resolution to formally support the refugees.
Several refugees and immigrants who have made Burlington home took to the steps of City Hall to address the supporters and share their stories. One resident from Bhutan explained how he had been welcomed into Vermont, and urged others to do the same with potential Syrian refugees.
“The debate on whether to allow refugees or not is actually a test of our morality and a test of true American values,” he said, receiving warm applause.
Lena Ginawi, a South Burlington High School student and member of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change, delivered a poem she had composed.
“The ring for freedom has suddenly gone mute because their tongues speak the language of terror,” Ginawi read from her poem. “But they cannot echo those words when their words are bound and bled and speak of graves and bones.”
Following multiple speakers on the City Hall steps, supporters, city councilors, and government officials escaped the cold and packed into Contois Auditorium for the council meeting.
After regular business, the meeting included a public comment period, when many residents addressed the city council regarding a proposed resolution that would formally support Syrian refugees.
Kit O’Connor, the legislative coordinator for Vermont Amnesty International, an organization that fights for human rights, came to the microphone to speak.
“They have fled horrific violence trying to rebuild their lives,” she said. “They want the same safety and opportunities that any of us in Vermont would want if we were in their shoes.”
O’Connor explained the multiple security steps a refugee must go through to enter the United States and asserted her faith in the process, acknowledging the safety concerns some Americans have.
“I refuse to live in a state of fear,” O’Connor said. “I choose instead to embrace the richness of humanity that welcoming refugees represents.”
Multiple residents from refugee or immigrant families addressed the council, talking about their personal experiences as new Americans. One speaker shared her story of helping to rescue Syrian refugees from liferafts in Greece, explaining in detail the struggle and horrors these people had been through.
Sophia St. John-Lockridge, a Burlington resident and sophomore at the Vermont Commons School, came to the meeting to let city councilors know how important the issue is to her.
“We need to stand up and accept these people with open arms,” she said.
After the conclusion of public comment, the city councilors began to discuss the resolution. Ward 4 City Councilor Kurt Wright proposed an amendment to add language that stated the city’s support for an enhanced vetting process.
Wright’s amendment was voted down by the majority of members after a lengthy discussion. O’Connor provided details on the current screening system to the councilors upon request. She opposed the amendment.
“To me Wright’s amendment negates that welcome,” O’Connor said.
The council passed the resolution to welcome Syrian refugees with an 11-1 vote and proceeded to vote 10-2 in favor of formalizing sanctuary city status. Sanctuary cities are municipalities that do not enforce federal immigration law and do not have law enforcement ask residents about immigration status.
Councilors Wright and Dave Hartnett voted against the latter resolution, which will create a committee to review and recommend policies. Wright was the only councilor to oppose the Syrian refugee resolution.
Watch a video from the vigil and council meeting: