Faith communities prepare to welcome refugees from Syria

Bellows Falls meeting to discuss resettlement in Rutland of 100 people fleeing from war

BELLOWS FALLS — By the end of the year, Rutland will receive 100 new residents, said Reverend Lise Sparrow, pastor at Guilford's United Church of Christ. Most of them will be women and children, and all of them will be resettled refugees from Syria.

Sparrow will join representatives from other Windham and Windsor county UCC churches, and other faith communities, at a presentation at the United Church of Bellows Falls on Oct. 23 to discuss the refugees' arrival and how southern Vermont community members can help them.

The presentation will be led by Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and coordinator of Rutland's refugee resettlement. Merdzanovic was resettled in Vermont after fleeing the war in Bosnia. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program is part of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit nationwide network that works with local groups to welcome and support refugees.

“The focus of the presentation is to have Amila talk about the two-year vetting process, and what the refugees have to do,” Sparrow said. “They have to work really hard when they get here, and be a part of society."

Sparrow's church is “part of a Vermont network of churches, and we're spearheading collaboration across the state to form a net around Rutland” to support that community in integrating the new arrivals.

If the Rutland community “didn't have to be the only support, that would be helpful, and the meeting in Bellows Falls is about gathering community and church support before the refugees arrive,” Sparrow said.

The Guilford UCC “hopes to sponsor a family, and form a pilot program for how a non-Rutland church can support refugees living in Rutland,” Sparrow said.

“The churches understand the degree to which people feel welcomed will affect their attitude toward the United States,” Sparrow said. “The attitudes [some Americans] are afraid of will emerge if the refugees are marginalized."

“Traditionally, churches sponsor refugee families,” Sparrow said, making sure they have a car, know the area, and learn English, if that's a consideration.

Although there are no plans to resettle refugees in Windham County, Sparrow said this area has a history of receiving them, mentioning the Southeast Asian refugees to the Brattleboro area in the 1980s as a recent example.

Members of the Guilford UCC support one or two students from other countries studying at the School for International Training every year. “We adopt them, and make sure they have winter coats,” Sparrow said. Although most of the “adoptees” are Christian, “we often have visitors from Afghanistan or African Muslim countries,” Sparrow said, adding, “we're very involved in interfaith."

When asked about her Christian church's efforts to support refugees who may not share their religious beliefs, Sparrow said, “when we talk about progressive Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, we're in a postmodern era where we have to accept that people find meaning in different sacred paths and texts,” and “we have to find commonalities. That deepens our own faith. I think that's the truth with most religious leaders.”

The Guilford UCC congregation gets “very excited about our faith 'having feet,'” Sparrow said.

Welcoming and supporting refugees “brings it back to the story of Moses,” she said. “Refugee stories are the heart of Judeo-Christianity. Refugee stories are at the heart of who we are."

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