Bellows Falls forum to focus on refugee resettlement in Vermont

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BELLOWS FALLS — Aida Advic, a doctor at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, was once a refugee from war torn Bosnia. She came to the United States as a child with her parents and depended on a church in Connecticut for her initial needs. She tells of her first clothing and home, of a used vehicle and of her first American friends, and now she is ready to help welcome the refugees who will be coming to Vermont this year.

According to Mia Merzdanovic, executive director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, 100 individuals, mostly women and children, will be arriving over the course of the next year and will be settled in Rutland. Merzdanovic, herself once a refugee from Bosnia, has been working with Rutland's five-term mayor, Chris Lounos, for over a year to put things in place; their major challenge being the hesitation of Rutland locals. While many welcome the opportunity to provide a place of welcome for those fleeing Syria's war, others are concerned about the vetting process and myriad of other concerns about the impact of these immigrants on local social services and on the workforce and school system

Louras is certain. He says his push to bring 100 Syrian refugees to Rutland is the right thing to do. "Bringing refugees to Rutland is both the compassionate thing to do and a way to breathe new life into the city."

And local churches, community members, including Advic, her husband and friends agree. Local churches are also taking this up as a community issue and are providing a forum this Sunday, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m. at the Bellows Falls United Church UCC, to hear from Merzdanovic and to begin conversations about how best to welcome and support not only the refugees but the community of Rutland and the Refugee Resettlement Program. Merzdanovic is quick to point out that there are already refugees from 18 countries resettled in the Burlington area. These refugees have quickly become self-sufficient, also making good use of donations given to and distributed from the First Congregational Church in Burlington. Grace Church United Church of Christ in Rutland is looking to provide the same sort of support for incoming refugees but also hopes to have broader local and community support.

The Guilford Community Church, UCC, and the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ Mission Committee, whose chair is Bert Marshall, interim pastor of the Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro, have brought this issue to the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ and churches all over Vermont committed to supporting the incoming refugees at their Annual Conference in April. Faith communities can help set a tone of welcome and can give the welcome "feet" by helping organize community efforts. Vermont can become a model of welcome and community support.

It is not up to Rutland's mayor or to Merzdanovic, but to all of us whose ancestors came as immigrants and refugees — native peoples not withstanding — our families were all once immigrants and refugees.

At the forum, Merzdanovic will describe not only the vetting process but the resettlement process as it currently functions and open to questions about how local communities can support refugees.

The Rev. Lise Sparrow, of the Guilford Community Church, can be contacted at 802-257-2776.


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