Brattleboro’s unsung heroes: our new refugee neighbors

Vermont’s refugees are helping all of us as a community. They are eager to work, sharing their skills, and planning how to rebuild their careers here.

BRATTLEBORO — The Ethiopian Community Development Council is America's only resettlement agency that is community-based and refugee-led. We at ECDC believe that refugee resettlement works only when the entire community is involved and when refugees themselves are in the lead.

A year ago, none of us could have imagined that the emergency evacuation of Kabul would have brought us together as a community to welcome 100 new refugees to southern Vermont.

We can be extremely proud of everything that we have been able to achieve together. We created a new organization, a new school, a new community center, a new Islamic prayer space (the first in southern Vermont!).

After just a few months with us, our new Afghan neighbors are already contributing so much to our communities because of the extraordinary level of support and community engagement here.

Refugees in Vermont are more secure in their housing, finances, and daily lives than those in nearly any other state. All have been able to quickly move into quality apartments that are affordable and walkable to downtown.

They have been busy improving their English and learning all about life in the U.S., with month after month of classes led by world-class English-as-a-second-language teachers affiliated with SIT/World Learning and Vermont Adult Learning (VAL).

Most households now have at least one member who has a full-time, decent job, largely thanks to the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC).

And, what's most important when you're new to a community is friendship. Our newcomers now know so many local people whom they can call for fun, for problems, for anything!

Two hundred ECDC volunteers have stepped up as drivers, movers, shoppers, and child-minders. Sixteen co-sponsorship groups are offering long-term support to all families with two or more children, which constitute the majority of our newcomers here.

Everyone is learning together, exchanging our cultures, and enjoying new activities together. Nothing is impossible when a community comes together with love to welcomes our new neighbors.

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But many of us here know all about these efforts from the community. What we don't see are the unsung heroes - those people doing the hardest tasks that most of us don't have the time, the patience, or the knowledge to do. Those people we don't see or recognize enough.

This year, ECDC received Brattleboro's 2022 Unsung Heroes Award from Compassionate Brattleboro. The award was accepted by our case managers, Jessica and Nebras, because of their tireless, behind-the-scenes work. They are available for all questions, for all emergencies, for all of us - not just for our newcomers, but also for all our staff and for volunteers who are often new to resettlement.

Still, we at ECDC are doing this work because we believe that the true unsung heroes are the refugees themselves. Often when working with immigrants, non-immigrants think of themselves as the “helpers” - helping those vulnerable people in need. But our new neighbors are the ones giving so much of themselves to help all of us.

Most of us cannot imagine the energy it takes to learn a new language, culture, and community, all while fearing for your family and friends back home. Our new neighbors are supporting one another to adapt to their new reality, to grieve their losses, and to build up friendship and trust together.

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We at ECDC are thrilled that our refugee leaders are stepping up to lead southern Vermont's welcoming communities. Shaima and Kamilla, a teacher and a seamstress, worked with volunteers to feed everyone living up at SIT. Amir and Ibrahim are project managers matching employers to new refugee employees.

Mustafa is a lawyer helping everyone to apply for asylum. Maiwand is a police officer who is now coordinating all our donations and volunteers. Sohaila - a teacher and women's education advocate - is organizing newcomers into teams working on art, sewing, and food. All of them have stepped up as interpreters, alongside Fatima, Orfan and several others.

Our new neighbors are helping their fellow refugees not only in Vermont, but also abroad. They are providing their family and friends back in Afghanistan with the money, food, and hope they need to survive.

Immigrant diasporas do more good to help people escape hunger, persecution, and misery than do the limited funds available for official development assistance.

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Lastly, Vermont's refugees are helping all of us as a community. They are eager to work, sharing their skills, and planning how to rebuild their careers here.

By my count, our 100 new Afghan neighbors include: 15 veteran soldiers; five artists and teachers; four lawyers; three IT specialists and journalists; two carpenters, drivers, mechanics, midwives, finance experts; and one baker, civil engineer, electrician, hairdresser, metal worker, plumber, police officer, and an imam.

And last week, we all celebrated Nada, one member of the award-winning Afghan Girls Robotics Team, who, after just four months, graduated from Brattleboro Union High School with honors!

These are the leaders that southern Vermont needs for its economy, its vitality, and its future.

With World Refugee Day celebrated recently, we should all find our own ways to thank them for all their efforts and help as Brattleboro's unsung heroes.

And we should encourage all new Vermonters to keep dreaming big - for themselves and for all of us in Vermont.

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