BRATTLEBORO — Last week, a group of Afghan refugee women, accompanied by local artist and teacher Terry Sylvester, made signs that say “Welcome” in English as well as Dari and Pashto - the two official languages of Afghanistan - and distributed them to downtown businesses.
“[Store owners] were very happy, and they said, 'Welcome' to us,” said Fatima, who participated in the project. ”They accepted our signs and put them in the windows, and they were very kind to us.”
Later in the week, Fatima and three other women - Mitra, Marwa, and Sohaila - joined Sylvester for an interview via Zoom. (For the women's security, their last names are withheld.)
“We made 10 signs,” said Fatima. “We shared the signs with stores [on upper Main Street], also the [Brattleboro Food] Co-op and the River Gallery School.”
Another business was Scissor Masters at 51 Elliot St., where the men of one of the refugee families happened to be getting haircuts donated by the salon.
Sylvester said that she and Lise Sparrow, who both belong to a Circle of Support for an Afghan family, came up with the idea for the signs.
“It was simple, really,” she said. With a supply of poster board, paint and markers, the Vermonters and the Afghans met at the dining hall at the Informational Center of the SIT/World Learning campus.
That space serves as an informal meeting spot on the campus that has welcomed the refugees and is providing them shelter as they adjust to their new environment.
Sylvester noted that Greg Lesch, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, has been very supportive of the women's initiative. The group would like to make more signs for businesses.
Downtown Brattleboro was “a very welcoming environment,” Mitra commented. “We are very eager to make more signs.”
The women are all professionals. Sohaila is a teacher of English; when she left Afghanistan, she was working with university students.
“I have a bachelor's degree in English literature from Samangan University,” she said. “I was working with university students in the management program. I was helping young men and women for democracy, with the National Endowment for Democracy.”
Fatima is an investigative journalist.
“In Afghanistan I worked in radio, and I had one experience working for television, and the last one was for a website,” she explained.
The group of refugees, she said, “came on the 27th of November to Qatar, and we were in Qatar for 21 days, and [then] we came to New Jersey. On the 28th of January, I came to Vermont.”
She has taken advantage of opportunities to learn about the Brattleboro community. The refugees take English classes three days a week and accompany volunteers to get to know the town.
“We went to some stores, and to the [Harris Hill] Ski Jump, and we went to The Commons,” she said.
She asked about an internship, and the Commons staff said she could start in early March.
“I was asked about my goal, and I said that I want to share the stories of the Afghan refugees in Brattleboro. Randy [Holhut, news editor of The Commons] told me, “You can start with your journey.”
Two of the women have a background in art. Mitra, who has a degree in management, had a gallery where she taught the arts; she had 20 member students.
“I am one of the members of ArtLords, an organization working for artists - especially for murals,” she said.
Marwa is also an artist. She created thank-you cards for each business-owner who accepted a “Welcome” sign.
“I made these cards, and when the owners of the stores accepted the signs, we gave them these cards to thank them,” she said. “All of us wrote our names on the other side of the card.”
Marwa, who specialized in murals in Afghanistan, is now a student at the River Gallery School.
“I'm hopeful for the future,” she said.