BRATTLEBORO—Refugee resettlement here continues to receive support on both state and local levels after Selectboard members met with representatives of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) and the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), two agencies that have been working in tandem on a resettlement initiative.
Gov. Phil Scott also expressed his offer of asylum following the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
At his Aug. 17 press conference, Scott said his office had again reached out to a senior member of the White House Intergovernmental Affairs Office “to make sure they knew we were here and ready, willing and able” to accept resettlement of those needing refuge from “moratorium countries.”
Scott had previously sent a letter to the State Department requesting additional refugees in March. He has made the plea regularly since taking office in 2017.
On March 15, Scott wrote to the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. Department of State saying, “Vermont is thrilled that President Biden has pledged to raise the annual refugee admissions ceiling from its historic low of 15,000 to 125,000 beginning next fiscal year.”
Scott expressed his “continued support for a strong and viable Refugee Program in Vermont and hope that you will consider an increase to the resettlement agency’s goal of 100 refugees in FFY 2021 and a much larger increase for next year.”
He said that Vermont has welcomed refugees successfully since the creation of the Refugee Act and the establishment of the Refugee Program in 1980.
“Since then, more than 8,000 refugees have resettled in our state,” Scott said.
“Even with extremely low numbers of arrivals in the last few years and COVID-19 challenges,” the Vermont chapter of the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants was able to maintain a “strong resettlement structure,” the governor continued.
“We have the capacity and the strong local support necessary to again resettle a significant number of refugees in Vermont,” he asserted.
Scott made the argument that refugees represent hope for Vermont’s long-term economic sustainability..
In his letter, he called these new Americans “an integral part of our efforts to grow Vermont’s economy, which include a workforce development strategy to attract new workers and meet the demographic challenges faced by a declining population.”
“To grow our workforce, we need to welcome more refugees to our state,” Scott said. “Our unemployment rate is tied for the third lowest rate in the U.S. and without new arrivals, employers will be unable to find the workers they need for their businesses.”
Out of the planned 100 refugee arrivals for fiscal year 2021, Scott said only 26 have arrived to date. “Our hope is that Vermont welcomes this number and more this year, and at least triples that placement objective for FY 2022.”
Scott said at his Aug. 17 press conference that he believed President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops was “the right decision in terms of ending this almost 20-year war that didn’t appear to be winnable.”
“It’s always the ‘how,’ though, how to end it,” Scott said. “I have a difference of opinion on the ‘how.’”
The issue and town officials’ support
Although no action was taken after the Brattleboro Selectboard hosted an early August public presentation about fostering refugee resettlement in the town and region, BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold said he was “very pleased” with the reaction.
“The specificity of [board members’] questions and awareness of the importance of doing this right, putting the work in up front to be sure we can be the welcoming community we envision, was refreshing to hear not only from the Selectboard, but also the public comments,” Grinold said, adding he is hoping to hear the State Department’s decision regarding the ECDC application to bring up to 75 refugees from war-torn countries to the town and region as housing needs can be fulfilled “in the weeks ahead.”
When Board Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin introduced the presentation, an excited voice in the audience could be heard to whisper, “It’s happening.”
Grinold explained that the initiative started about a decade ago with EDCC support for the Southeastern Vermont Economic Strategy process to create a comprehensive strategy for the region, a planning journey that requires federal approval.
A need to get younger
As the process to understand the challenges and assets of the region unfolded, the study group determined some truths about Windham County and its workforce.
Compared with the state average, population loss was found to be greater, with those remaining aging faster than in many other parts of the state, although Windham is not the only county experiencing either phenomenon.
Still, a key objective became finding ways to keep people here and attract new residents to increase the state population.
One strategy is retaining young people through numerous workforce high school programs.
Another strategy brings new families to Vermont by increasing both immigration and “in-migration,” where people moving to a region/community from another region in the U.S., such as what has happened during the pandemic.
From 2014 to 2016, the group researched how to foster both strategies to counter declining and aging population trends.
“It turns out pandemics help with the ‘in-migration,’ but immigration is much more challenging,” Grinold said, adding, “we’re not doing immigration work so that the immigrants themselves will grow our economy, it’s, in fact, to create a vibrant community, and a result of a vibrant community will be a growing economy. It’s really an outcome of it; it’s not the sole purpose.”
Grinold acknowledged the issues are teaching English, providing housing, offering child care, paying for food, finding job, and generally providing what anyone needs to live.
The housing challenge became exacerbated by the influx of people during COVID-19 wanting to flee more densely populated areas with enough financial resources for them to often outbid those less affluent. That issue still exists, but Grinold said, “We also know we need people and we need them now.”
He said that welcoming immigrants will make Windham County a “more diverse region [...] if we can get this right."
BDCC Welcoming Communities Manager Alexander Beck said that in talking with towns and municipalities throughout Windham County, the group “heard time and again, ‘we need more workers.’”
In trying to identify what has been causing this challenge and why immigration could counter the trend, Beck said the group found that while over time the state population is declining, that has not happened in all communities.
Thus the challenge became to find out “what they have that we don’t,” he said.
Ultimately, they arrived at immigration as a way to counter the negative trends, said Beck, noting that one reason to believe so is because immigration is “already reversing the trend in Windham County.”
“There are more folks who look like me who are leaving and there are more folks who don’t look like me coming in,” Beck, a white man, said, adding that the group also looked at other regions of the U.S. to see how the declining population trend is being countered and found “many have support systems for immigrants in place.”
Calling it “one of many important investments we can make in our community and making it welcome,” Beck said the group “really explored what it means to be a supporting and welcoming community.”
“Our role is to convene the partners that we work with regularly to help design the system and infrastructure to help support immigrants of all cultures,” he said, noting partners include SIT Graduate Institute/World Learning, Southeast Vermont Transit, Community Asylum Seekers Project, and the Windham Regional Commission as well as housing and social service organizations.
EDCC founder Tsehaye Teferra spoke to the meeting from Arlington, Virginia via Zoom.
“We are very excited and we are very grateful to Adam and Alex,” he said, noting his organization has applied to the State Department for permission to resettle refugees in the area.
Teferra said while it had been hoped to start resettlement in October, it may take into December to get all ducks in a row and that the plan is to start small and grow annually.
Asked to name the driving force to locate refugees in small, rural towns such as Brattleboro by Selectboard member Jessica Gelter, Teferre acknowledged that most EDCC settlements to date have been in larger cities but that, in smaller cities and towns, refugees will have better outcomes and interact with longer-time residents as well as newcomers.
The public weighs in
During the public comment period, resident Joseph Runge wanted to know how much EDCC would benefit financially from placing refugees in Brattleboro and how many would be resettled here.
Cautioned by McLoughlin that “some of the terms you used were insulting” and her saying she doesn’t want guests to be insulted, Runge said he just wanted information.
Teferra said while a maximum of 75 immigrants is planned, the pace at which they come — perhaps five or six per month — will be approached in partnership with the community. He added that EDCC is given a $1,250 one-time grant per refugee — with which housing, food, and furniture must be provided for the initial period.
Knowing that is not enough money to support a refugee over time, the appeal for public and private help continues. Grinold added that the group is asking landlords and community members to help.
“We do, as a community, need to raise significant funds to support this initiative — not just this year, but every year thereafter,” he said.
Teferra also clarified that his organization is not motivated by monetary gain.
“I don’t think there is a financial benefit that motivates us to do this work,” he said. “Our hearts and soul are really to help people resettle, get away from the trauma, the difficulties, the conflict [...] if these people had choices, they would have stayed home, but they are driven from their homes, from their dreams, separated from their families. So anybody working in this field is not motivated by any financial gains, I can assure you.”
Resident Tim Maciel, a Windham Southeast School District Board member, voiced support.
While saying that he didn’t speak for the school board, he said that “a lot of us feel that having refugees in Brattleboro is not only good economically and the right and compassionate thing” to do, but that schools will benefit “tremendously” from more diversity in the classroom.
“This is only a really great thing for us,” Maciel said.
“Welcome to the family,” said Gary Stroud, a member of Representative Town Meeting. “You can never put a price tag on freedom. All of us paid to get our family, our forefathers, to come here.”
Jeff Lewis, former BDCC executive director, attended the presentation with a small group from St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, which is exploring becoming a co-sponsor for those relocating here.
“We are all refugees in one way or another,” he said. “It makes our community richer and deeper, and we’re proud to be part of this.”
Help from CASP
“We’re fully on board and ready to collaborate in the way that makes the most sense,” said Kate Paarlberg-Kvam of the Community Asylum Seekers Project (CASP), an organization dedicated to assisting asylum seekers in the greater Brattleboro area.
Since 2016, CASP has provided material support to asylum seekers, including the provision of housing, legal aid, health care, job training and placement, and language learning opportunities.
CASP has a strong base of local volunteers who assist asylum seekers to gain access to resources and community integration. In addition to expanding ongoing support for asylum seekers, CASP is collaborating with the ECDC to help resettle refugees.
To ensure sustainability to meet both new and existing needs of new Vermonters in the Brattleboro area, CASP is in process of raising $20,000 via an online fundraiser (startsomegood.com/AsylumSupport) to expand capacity with a paid outreach coordinator to take on volunteer recruitment, “onboarding,” and training. To date, $14,486 has been raised.
What about housing?
Selectboard member Tim Wessel said he is “very anxious to embrace and welcome new community members” but wanted to know that housing difficulties are being “addressed quickly and in an up-front way.”
Beck assured him that resettlement partners are working through challenges such as housing, a problem “not unique to our community regardless of who is coming into our community.”
He said people in the Brattleboro community are “making sure we’re part of the conversations happening at the housing coalition [...] and making sure we’re not competing with the folks here allowing equitable access.”
“No one is going to solve the housing crisis by October,” Beck said. “It’s really making sure when we’re all spending time on solutions [...] what we’re planning for down the road is that we’re serving all our community members.”
He added no refugees will be brought to Brattleboro until housing for them is secured.
“Refugee resettlement isn’t something that happens to a community, it’s something that happens with a community,” he said.
Marion Major, outreach and marketing coordinator of the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, said the nonprofit supports the initiative and “a systemic strategy coming from a lot of different angles” to facilitate resettlement.
Selectboard Vice Chair Ian Goodnow appreciated the opportunity now before the town.
“I don’t feel a lot of shame about my state,” he said, referring to how he felt when “a community in Vermont a few years ago wholeheartedly rejected refugees.” In 2015, voters ousted the mayor of Rutland who had made resettlement of Syrian refugees there a signature issue.
“I felt it in such a deep personal place because that’s not what I thought my state was,” he added.
He said he told himself that if he were ever in a position to help change that, he would “fully embrace” such an opportunity to welcome others to the community.
“I think we need to make the change that’s going to make Vermont the place we want it to be,” he said. “That’s diversity, that’s inclusion, that’s going to bring housing. These issues are not isolated, they’re interconnected.”
“I think we all understand at a basic level the concerns for our Afghanistan and Iraqi translators and helpers and the need for them to be resettled, but everyone else as well has a very grave need,” McLoughlin said.
That having been said, she added some final words to her remarks.
“You certainly have my support,” she said.