BRATTLEBORO — In an affirmation of the idea that the town wants, needs, and welcomes newcomers, community leaders, social service providers, and concerned citizens filled an airy second-floor room at the Cotton Mill on Oct. 29 to celebrate the opening of the Brattleboro Multicultural Community Center.
As the town prepares to welcome the first group of refugees from Afghanistan by the end of this month, the center will play a key role in aiding the transition for these newcomers.
However, offering care and compassion is only the beginning.
Dora Urujeni, a Rwandan who was born in a refugee camp in the Republic of Congo, came to Brattleboro in 2017 to earn a master's degree at the School for International Training. She is now a case manager at the Brattleboro-based Community Asylum Seekers Project (CASP).
She acknowledged the difficulty of welcoming strangers to one's town, but she believes the people of Vermont can rise to the challenge.
“Integration is not one-way,” Urujeni said. “It's two-ways. These people are fleeing from traumatic situations. They need a place of belonging. They want to feel welcomed. I want to invite Vermont to look at these people who have potential, skills, and something they can offer to us.”
Joe Wiah, who left his native Liberia when he was 18 and has lived in Vermont for nine years, said he knows from his experience that Vermont is a welcoming place.
“But I've never seen such collective commitment to refugee resettlement,” said Wiah, the newly appointed director of the Multicultural Community Center.
That is why, when the Virginia-based Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) sought to expand its refugee resettlement operations in smaller U.S. communities, it chose to open an office in Brattleboro.
“I've never been in a community as welcoming as what I have seen here,” said Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, president and CEO of the ECDC, adding he was “really impressed” with the depth and breadth of participation.
“It really takes everyone here to make this program work, and I am very grateful,” he said.
Teferra said Vermont's recent history with refugee resettlement was a big factor in ECDC's decision-making.
ECDC, which is authorized by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees from around the world in the United States, has received approval to bring up to 100 people in 25 families to Brattleboro, Teferra said.
It is a small fraction of the 60,000 people who fled the country in August after the collapse of the Afghan government and the withdrawal of U.S. military forces after nearly 20 years.
Vermont's big heart
For U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., it is no surprise that Vermonters want to help, noting the state's willingness to take responsibility for the human costs of our nation's foreign policy, as well as a recognition of how much these new Vermonters will add to the state's vitality.
“But deep down, it's our heart and it's our soul,” Welch said. “We need a way to express, through action, our desire to help others and welcome them into our community. We are blessed in Vermont because we do care about one another, and it's important to us to care even about people we don't know.”
Nancy Izzo Jackson, a senior official with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, said there has been “incredible outpouring of support across the country [...] from all walks of life, particularly our veterans, for vulnerable Afghans.”
But she said it was Vermont Gov. Phil Scott who was among the first to volunteer to accept these refugees.
“I was delighted, but not surprised at all, to hear that Vermont raised its hand immediately,” Jackson said. “I am so grateful to Gov. Scott and the people of Vermont for opening your arms and hearts to the most vulnerable among us.”
Izzo Jackson also thanked one of the private backers of the resettlement efforts, the Boston-based Shapiro Foundation.
Ed Shapiro, whose family directs the foundation's philanthropic activity, said his wife Barbara, a University of Vermont graduate, called his attention to Scott's frustration at his Republican Party's unwillingness to welcome more refugees to the U.S., and she suggested he speak with the governor.
As Shapiro recounted, Scott told him, “My own party was in the White House for four years, and every time I heard President Trump say we don't want any refugees, I said, 'Vermont does, bring them here.'”
“But it didn't work,” Shapiro said.
“This commitment that the community, that the state made, that the people of Brattleboro made - that is an example of what is happening all across the country,” Shapiro continued. “The American people are rising up and saying we want to help.”
Tracy Dolan, the state refugee coordinator, said that Vermont's response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that “Vermonters have an enormous capacity for compassion” and that “we are capable of doing almost anything. Obstacles may exist, but there are almost always solutions.”
A natural collaboration
The Brattleboro Multicultural Community Center is a collaboration between the ECDC and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), with additional help from a variety of sources.
The center was originally going to be headquartered in the Cotton Mill for the long term, said BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold, but its responsibilities grew so fast that it will be moving to another site on Putney Road in a few weeks.
BDCC has been working with the state and community groups and volunteers to bring the center to town as part of its Welcoming Communities program.
Grinold said a recognition of “a lot of significant future demographic challenges for the region” is a big reason for an economic development organization to work on immigration issues.
Windham County's population is one of the oldest in Vermont, and Grinold said he believes there is an urgent need for newcomers to help boost the local economy.
Grinold said the BDCC has spent the past two years putting together a coalition “of the willing and the eager.” That coalition includes CASP, the Windham Regional Commission, the Bennington County Regional Commission, the School for International Training, Southeast Vermont Transit, United Way of Windham County, and the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation.
That coalition helped attract ECDC and played a role in the organization's decision to open a Brattleboro office.
It's going to be a big job to help Afghans to find housing, jobs, education, and other needs.
While the center will work with refugees as they make the transition to their new home, Wiah said that “I cannot do it all, and ECDC cannot do it alone. We as a community must collectively find solutions.”