BRATTLEBORO — Up to 100 Afghan refugees will have a place to live and learn during their first 90 days in Vermont before settling into the community as a whole in May.
On Thursday, the Ethiopian Community Development Council announced it had joined with World Learning and the School for International Training to welcome the evacuees through the Afghan Placement and Assistance program.
“This is a happy coincidence of opportunity, needs and values,” said Sophia Howlett, president and chief education officer at SIT.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, SIT and its parent, World Learning, announced it was tweaking it model to allow for more in-field training and less on campus classwork. The result was, she said, lots of students in the summer but a vacant campus during the fall and through the winter. Being able to open the facility for the evacuees is an appropriate use of the campus, she said.
In addition to opening the campus to the evacuees, SIT and World Learning will be providing educational opportunities, including English language classes.
“We are ready to roll up our sleeves and get involved,” said Howlett.
SIT is already temporary home to 22 evacuees, and more are expected soon.
Howlett said former and current faculty are already working with the evacuees.
This is the first attempt at partnering an educational institution with refugee resettlement and may serve as a model for other programs around the country.
The ECDC-World Learning partnership is the first of its kind for ECDC, which is piloting the program as part of its Opening Universities for Refugees initiative.
Howlett said SIT is positioned to offer these services going forward for other refugees and evacuees.
Howlett pointed out since its founding 90 years ago, SIT has a history of working with and supporting refugees.
“Many of the faculty working on this project have already been involved in refugee resettlement and language training,” she said. “Here in Brattleboro they found the right community.”
Joel Colony, the director of external engagement and advocacy at World Learning said working with refugees “is in our DNA.”
For nearly 20 years, SIT and World Learning have resettled more than 250,000 refugees in third countries.
“This program in partnership with the ECDC fits squarely in our history,” he said.
Colony said he hopes to share the model with other institutions of higher education across Vermont and the country to support Afghans and other refugees to rural American communities.
The 100 coming to Brattleboro have been housed at U.S. military bases for several months.
In addition to having a place to stay, make meals and learn English, evacuees will receive assistance with employment placement, enrolling in schools and public benefits programs, changing their immigration status, and other referrals as needed.
The Welcoming Communities Program, hosted by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, will help transition the evacuees from the campus and into the community.
“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, manager for resettlement in Brattleboro, who thanked Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the Vermont State Housing Authority and the Agency of Human Services for their support.
He said material donations and volunteers have exceeded his expectations, but ECDC could also use financial donations to help the evacuees transition into the community.
Even though the community is rolling out the red carpet for the evacuees, that doesn’t guarantee they will stay.
“Its up to the community to create the conditions that make them want to stay and not go elsewhere in the region or the country,” said Alec Beck, the program manager for Welcoming Communities. “Some will stay and some will leave. Everyone who wants to make Vermont home will have the resources and opportunities to do so.”
ECDC can help them settle anywhere within 100 miles of Brattleboro.
“We want people to stay,” said Wiah.
Beck, Wiah and Dora Urujeni, a case manager for the Community Asylum Seekers Project in Brattleboro, which is supporting ECDC in its mission, are all graduates of SIT Graduate Insitute. CASP is not directly involved in resettling Afghans, but is currently assisting about a dozen people from other countries.
Howlett also thanked Gov. Phil Scott, Rep. Peter Welch and senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, as well as local legislators, for their advocacy.
All of the evacuees coming to Brattleboro have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and safety protocols will be maintained on the campus during their stay.