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Joe Wiah has been hired as director of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), headquarted at the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro.

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Vermont opens its doors

State get approval to welcome up to 100 Afghan refugees as the Ethiopian Community Development Council opens resettlement center in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO—The state has been approved to welcome up to 100 Afghan refugees at the same time that the refugee resettlement movement overseen by the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) has hired a director for a new office here.

Gov. Phil Scott made the announcement last week regarding the Afghan refugees that the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has been approved by the U.S. Department of State to bring here. They are expected within weeks, although no exact arrival timeline has been established.

“We have a moral obligation to help the people of Afghanistan, who did so much to help us in the war on terror,” said Scott. “In addition to this being the right thing to do, we know that welcoming more refugees also strengthens communities, schools, our workforce, culture, and economy. I appreciate the federal government’s partnership in helping us welcome more families to Vermont.”

USCRI is a national nonprofit resettlement agency that helps people who have migrated to the U.S. live safe and dignified lives. Multiple entities — including the USCRI Vermont office, the governor’s office, the State Refugee Office at the Vermont Agency of Human Services — have been pursuing opportunities to welcome refugees since the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover. The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan closed Aug. 31.

The goal is to accommodate “some of the many Afghans who are being targeted due to support of the U.S. military and U.S. government agencies, as well as media and non-governmental organizations following the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan,” according to a Sept. 16 news release from the governor’s office.

Since taking office in 2017, Scott has regularly requested annual increases in refugee resettlement in Vermont many times, as part of a comprehensive strategy to increase economic growth and to expand the state’s workforce.

He reiterated his offer of asylum following the Taliban takeover.

At an Aug. 17 press conference, Scott said his office had again reached out to the U.S. State Department “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 of this year.

“We were glad to receive this approval from the State Department,” said Tracy Dolan, director of the State Refugee Office, which is working closely with USCRI to plan support services for Afghans arriving in Vermont.

“It is an honor to help those who have helped our service members overseas, and it is a wonderful opportunity for Vermont’s communities and for our businesses who are very interested in expanding our workforce and filling our job vacancies,” said Dolan, who assumed her role Aug. 30.

“We are learning from our colleagues at military bases and arrival centers across the country that employment is one of the highest priorities mentioned by these newly arriving Afghans,” she continued. “They are eager to find jobs and rebuild their lives.”

USCRI Vermont says the agency will work closely with the state, schools, employers, landlords, and health and social service programs to meet the needs of arriving Afghans and of the community.

Before they arrive in Vermont, Afghans will have completed medical and security screenings and will be authorized to work. USCRI continues to respond to Vermont volunteers and businesses interested in offering support.

“I want to thank Vermonters for the outpouring of support we are receiving. We are not always fast to respond immediately to your offers due to the preparations we are making, but want you to know we are thankful as we work together to extend a warm welcome to our Afghan neighbors,” said USCRI Director Amila Merdzanovic.

ECDC hires Wiah as director for Brattleboro office

The State Department has also approved the ECDC’s opening of a new Multicultural Community Center and office at 76 Cotton Mill Hill in Brattleboro.

Joe Wiah, who holds an M.A. in intercultural service, leadership, and management from SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, has been hired as its director.

The resettlement agency — based in Virginia and working with refugees from around the world — has been working with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and other local agencies here to bring up to 75 refugees from around the world to live and work in Brattleboro this fall and winter.

It is one of nine national resettlement agencies that has been resettling refugees since 1991, working with a network of 15 affiliate organizations around the country. The mission of ECDC is “to empower refugees and immigrants to become self-sufficient and integrated members of American society who receive support from and ultimately contribute to their local communities.”

Wiah, 47, who began his new role on Sept. 20, is originally from Liberia. He also holds a B.A. in philosophy from Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

Although he spoke English when he arrived in the U.S. in 2012, Wiah said by phone this week that, “like everyone else, I still had to find a find a way to integrate, to be part of the community, be part of the culture, and make this place a home.”

His job will be to coordinate services among the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), the Community Asylum Seekers Project (CASP), housing and food providers, schools/educational institutions, and other service organizations “and see how we can make the transition process better.”

“If we stay here, (1)there may be others coming so now is the time to set the blueprint,” Wiah says. “As someone with firsthand experience being welcomed as a newcomer in Vermont, it is a privilege to have been chosen by ECDC to serve as that bridge to connect our new neighbors to our community. I am excited to join this community of experienced professionals and look forward to working with all local, regional, and state partners to collectively make this dream a reality.”

Wiah comes to ECDC with more than a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, serving vulnerable populations both in Vermont and internationally in Africa. Most recently, he was a housing case manager for Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) in Brattleboro, through which he helped Vermonters from 15 towns within Windham County access housing, fuel, food, and home repair services.

Before that, Wiah worked for Pathways-DC and Pathways Vermont, providing needed services to clients struggling with mental health issues or returning to communities after time in prison.

Internationally, his work focused on creating legislation, policies, and programs that contributed to the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration of child soldiers in Liberia.

Wiah’s hiring is supported by the Shapiro Foundation and Braden-Harder & Lawrence Harder Charitable Fund.

“Joe is an excellent person for this role because he is well-versed in the social service system of Vermont as well as international circumstances and environments which create the need for refugee resettlement,” said Tsehaye Teferra, ECDC president and CEO. “His personal compassion and commitment to helping those in need combined with his budgeting, strategic planning, and grant management skills will ensure that our Brattleboro program is successful.”

In his new role, Wiah will be responsible for coordinating with community stakeholders and preparing to meet the needs of refugees related to employment, affordable housing, medical care, education, and more as well as broader participation in the community’s civic life.

Community Asylum Seekers Project (CASP) Executive Director Kate Paarlberg-Kvam has been doing this work since 2016, when the group started, “in some ways, in response to the failure in Rutland.”

Despite a big community push, trying to resettle Syrian refugees there resulted in bitter community backlash.

Steve Crofter founded CASP after going to the U.S. Mexican border and learning that some who have obtained stated claims to asylum in the U.S. after official interviews were not being released as they should have been. If they have somewhere to go, they can be released from detention — yet sometimes, said Paarlberg-Kvam, “they just languish in detention centers for absolutely no reason.”

Crofter went door to door seeking folks to host those seeking asylum, and since then, CASP has supported 20 people.

Paarlberg-Kvam pointed out a nuance that differentiates a refugee from an asylum seeker: A refugee seeks asylum in the U.S. from outside the U.S., while the latter does the same in person at a U.S. border.

CASP serves asylum seekers, and the ECDC serves refugees. The two organizations have worked together.

“We’ve been talking with the ECDC about their desire to open an office here, just kind of helping them, and we’re really excited about our developing partnership,” said Paarlberg-Kvam.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #631 (Wednesday, September 22, 2021). This story appeared on page A2.

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