Creating Light: Sanibel and Rutland

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Susan B. Apel

I was recently in idyllic Sanibel, an island off the coast of Florida. Its beaches are popular with seashell collectors. I watched them, some with flashlights in the early, still dark mornings, looking for the best and rarest shells. There are palm trees and mangroves, some beautiful conservation areas. And a historical village museum, a smaller version of Portsmouth's Strawbery Banke, that tells the stories of some of the island's earlier inhabitants.

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This brought me up short.

One of the buildings in Sanibel's historical village museum

Not that it was surprising that a segregated school had existed here, but that I was actually standing in one, and that it had been as recent as 1964 before black and white kids on the island were finally educated under the same roof. "In my very own lifetime," I have been known to say to my students about the 1960s battles for civil rights. It never fails to sadden me, this history of ours. And apparently Lee County fought integration in schools with a bloody ferocity that was unfortunately common at the time. If there was a single bright note, when integration finally came to Sanibel, it was because parents of both races asked that the then separate schools be combined into one. It doesn't make racial segregation and its history any less awful, but it gave me a sliver of comfort to know that people can make light happen in the worst of times.

I was still carrying these thoughts around when I heard the news that after only two Syrian refugee families had settled in Rutland, VT, the resettlement program has all but shut down due to the current president's executive order. As I had written in a previous post, my own support of that program had been meager, limited to a donated purchase of a gift card at a Rutland grocery store. But I know that many in the community--in Rutland and in the Upper Valley and elsewhere--had spent much time and energy and heart in preparing to welcome several more families who are now suffering profound disappointment, not to mention the very real threats to their lives and welfare. 

This action by Trump in refusing to help Syrian refugees will be, in my opinion, another stain upon our nation's history. Whether you agree or not, just pause to appreciate the actions of our neighbors. In looking, hoping for any sliver of goodness in a tragic situation, I found this (and it was more than a sliver): regardless of Trump's executive order and its consequences, nothing will change the fact that many people of Vermont, and Rutland in particular, opened their arms with compassion to other human beings in need. They collected food and winter clothing, secured housing, and prepared their schools for new arrivals. Dozens turned up at a community center in Rutland to learn Arabic. They too created light, and recognized the need for love, in a dark time.

A postscript: As I was working on this piece, I was watching NBC's national evening news. In covering the story of the shutdown of the resettlement program for Syrian refugees, upon whom did they focus? The just-settled refugee families in Rutland, VT. They are happy to be here, they said, and have felt welcomed. For not the first time in my life, I am proud of and heartened by my fellow Vermonters.


I am writing about the arts in the Upper Valley. Don't want to miss anything? Sign up to receive an email each time I post something new by clicking here. To view my profile page, please click here.

Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge

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