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Welcoming the stranger in our midst

For a young refugee couple in Brattleboro, their child was born into the compassionate embrace of a community

Rev. Lise Sparrow is the pastor of the Guilford Community Church, United Church of Christ. With Brattleboro voting overwhelmingly to become part of the international Charter for Compassion, the Brattleboro Reformer and The Commons have agreed to publish a Compassion Story of the Month. Submissions, from Brattleboro area residents, for future publication, not to exceed 650 words, should be emailed to: compassionstory@gmail.com or mailed to Compassion Story of the Month, c/o Robert Oeser, PO Box 6001, Brattleboro, VT 05302.

Brattleboro

The stories of neighbors helping neighbors are manifold in this compassionate community of ours. But with the holidays just past, I thought it might make sense to write about the hospitality we are able to show strangers in our midst.

As we well understand, this is particularly challenging at present when the strangers are refugees — more than half of them children — and with the number of refugees now permitted entry to this country cut by more than half.

In all, an estimated 11 to 12 million people are refugees in the world today, compared with fewer than 3 million in the mid-1970s.

* * *

One of these refugees — let’s call him Mwata, now in his early 30s — arrived in Brattleboro. He had lived in a refugee camp in Uganda since he had fled the perilously embattled Congo at the age of 8.

As often happens in refugee camps, the refugees themselves organized schools and sports camps for their children to provide them both with education and with hope. Mwata, in time, became a leader in organizing such programs, although he himself had learned French and English not from classes but from other refugees.

But why should we find Mwata in Vermont?

It’s often assumed that Vermont would be about the last place in the country refugees of different races and ethnicities would want to come. We are the second-whitest state in the nation, and our weather is far more forbidding than most of the Southern and Western states.

Nonetheless, since 2013, nearly 300 refugees a year have been resettled here, mostly in the Burlington area, where jobs are more plentiful and schools are prepared with English-as-a-second-language instruction.

Refugees have also resettled in Colchester and, more recently, in Rutland, with community groups in place to accommodate them. Still, many of those refugees slated to arrive in Vermont remain in European refugee camps awaiting release.

* * *

In Brattleboro, the SIT Graduate Institute recently granted scholarships to five students whose lives had been in danger. One of these students was Mwata.

By the time he was received here at SIT, Mwata had married another refugee and had a young daughter, so the three of them arrived from the warmest of continents to a place where the leaves were falling from the trees and the winds were growing cold.

SIT granted Mwata tuition and helped the family find housing, but then it was up to them — and to their new community — to find jobs, furniture, and a school for their daughter.

They were soon welcomed into the life of a local church, and St. Michael’s Roman Catholic School provided the young child with a scholarship.

Hilltop Montessori and the Brattleboro Retreat both provided jobs to Mwata’s wife, and individuals stepped forward to offer Mwata gardening jobs — although, being particularly adept at working with special-needs children, he has been sought to do that work when he is not studying to complete his degree.

And then, when it was discovered that Mwata and his wife were expecting another child, our compassionate community really kicked in. Friends organized a baby shower, and people who barely knew the family came forward with a crib and infant-care equipment that Mwata and his wife never knew existed.

When the baby was born, a meal train was organized, providing the whole family with meals for a month.

The child was born into the compassionate embrace of a community of strangers, not because of a government policy, not because of a resettlement plan, but because the people of our town cared enough to extend love to a family in need — a family that now loves us right back.

As we leave the darkest days of the calendar year, this is a story which reveals the essence of who we truly are: a compassionate community.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Tamara Stenn
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Aug 2018
Tamara Stenn (Brattleboro, Vermont, US) says...

Thanks for writing this Elayne. I was thinking the same thing myself. The silence we received from the hospital is quite deafening. Unfortunately we\'ve had to continue working with the hospital as other (minor) heath issues come up.

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Judith Skillman
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Aug 2018
Judith Skillman (Newcastle, US) says...

Excellent and informative writing about the media and about the state of our nation. We must support the press speak truth to power, now more than ever before.

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Ruby Bode
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Aug 2018
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US) says...

We are also obliged to criticize the press when they merely echo the lies of the powerful. In this case, much of the press has taken a side, not just against the policies of the President, but against the election itself on behalf of the parties of war and Wall St. Just as the US has in the past agitated in other countries for coups against democratic outcomes they don’t like, much of the press, including this editorial, is now agitating for a coup here at home.

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Peter Ford
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Aug 2018
Peter Ford (Dallas) says...

Nailed it - Thank you.

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TB Smith
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Aug 2018
TB Smith (Ba, Oklahoma, US) says...

The divisiveness brought on by this shamefully poor excuse for a president has been once again, borne out by this article, and the responses to it .. his most devoted followers are the most gullible and easily swayed sheeple since the \"Kool-Aid party in Jonestown\" ... those who stand up the most fervently to this dictator \"wanabe\", will , inthe end, see him and the fellow purveyors of his garbage rhetoric like FOX News, Alex Jones, Breitbart, etc., crumble and be dumped like stale crackers (pardon the pun) .. we must impeach this tyrant before too much damage is done, either from within or outside our borders.

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US) says...

So it’s OK that access to outlets that simply recognize Trump as President is indeed being shut down? But isn’t that exactly what this editorial is against? Should outlets that cheered on Obama’s wars and love of Wall St have likewise been shut down? Only John Birch Society–inspired screeds against Trump indicate the “legitimate” press?

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US) says...

TB Smith’s comment in apparent support of the us-vs-them tone of this editorial illustrates why so many people distrust so much of the press (although, again, it appears to be only pro-Trump and anti-imperialist outlets that are actually being shut down): They are promulgating hysterical claims about fascism, Russians, and “crackers” not in the interest of the people, but wholly on behalf of the neoliberal/neoconservative program of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama to deny Trump the Presidency and even remove him from office – not democratically, but by coup if necessary. That makes the press rather anti-democratic and, indeed, against the people.

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Amelia Stone
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Aug 2018
Amelia Stone (E Dummerston, Vermont, US) says...

Kudos to the Boston Globe for encouraging newspapers across the country to remind us all of the value of a free press, and to the Commons for hearing that call. The NYTimes article, A Free Press Needs You, concludes with the following: \"If you haven’t already, please subscribe to your local papers. Praise them when you think they’ve done a good job and criticize them when you think they could do better. We’re all in this together.\" Today I plan to subscribe.

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