BRATTLEBORO — It's a “happy coincidence of opportunity, needs, and values,” as School for International Training (SIT) President Sophia Howlett called it.
SIT has a mostly empty campus these days. Meanwhile, the people who are helping to resettle Afghan evacuees in southern Vermont needed a short-term place for them to stay and begin the transition to life in a new country.
And thus has grown an innovative idea that may become a model for future collaborations between other educational institutions and refugee resettlement organizations.
At a virtual news conference on Jan. 13, SIT and its parent, World Learning, joined with the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) to announce that the campus will serve as a temporary stop for the 100 or so Afghans who have started to arrive in Brattleboro.
Since SIT changed its education model in 2019 to focus more on in-the-field training and less on classroom work, much of the campus on Black Mountain Road has been unoccupied during the fall and winter months.
But filling empty buildings is only part of why ECDC took up SIT and World Learning on the offer to use the campus through the summer. From now through April, the school will also be providing educational opportunities, including cultural support and English language classes for the evacuees.
A not-so new idea
While the SIT/ECDC partnership is the first of ECDC's Opening Universities for Refugees initiative, the idea of an educational institution providing services to displaced peoples is not a new one for SIT.
As Joel Colony, the director of external engagement and advocacy at World Learning, put it, “working with refugees is in our DNA.”
Since its founding as the Experiment in International Living in 1932, the school has a long history of working and supporting refugees, from the displaced persons in Europe after World War II to those fleeing the ongoing wars in Syria and the Sudan.
“Many of the faculty working on this project have already been involved in refugee resettlement and language training,” Howlett said. “Here in Brattleboro, they found the right community.”
Colony said he hopes other colleges and universities across the U.S., particularly in rural areas, will adopt this model for supporting Afghans and other refugees as they arrive to this nation.
Coming to America
There are 22 Afghan evacuees now at SIT, and more will be coming soon. Most of the arrivals are under the age of 40. After spending several months housed on U.S. military bases after they fled Afghanistan in August, their stay in Brattleboro represents the first step toward building a life in a new country.
On the SIT campus, the evacuees will get help with finding jobs and suitable housing, enrolling in schools and public benefits programs, changing their immigration status, and other services.
Two regional nonprofits are helping ECDC in the transition effort: the Welcoming Communities Program, hosted by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and led by Alex Beck, an SIT graduate, and the Community Asylum Seekers Project in Rockingham, which has another SIT graduate, Dora Urujeni, as a case manager.
“This arrangement gives us more time to find the best permanent housing option for newcomers, which is a challenge, and also gives them some additional connections to people and resources in the community,” said Joe Wiah, director of the Brattleboro Multicultural Community Center, which was opened by ECDC in November.
Wiah, also an SIT graduate, said the donations of time and material goods by Brattleboro-area residents have exceeded everyone's expectations. However, he said that the Center also needs financial donations to help the evacuees' transition process.
ECDC says it is able to resettle individuals anywhere within 100 miles of Brattleboro. While Wiah said “we want people to stay,” Beck said that “it's up to the community to create the conditions that make them want to stay and not go elsewhere in the region or the country” and to help make it possible for “everyone who wants to make Vermont home [to] have the resources and opportunities to do so.”
While there are many job opportunities in Vermont, Wiah acknowledged that finding housing will be a big factor in whether the new arrivals settle in Brattleboro, where the rental market is extremely tight, or in Bennington or Rockingham, where there is more housing available.
Wiah said that, so far, the new arrivals are settling into life at SIT.
“There's a positive vibe right now,” he said.