BRATTLEBORO — Across southern Vermont, 12 co-sponsorship groups are supporting refugees as they settle in.
“We are looking for more volunteers, co-sponsorship groups and housing leads,” said Joe Wiah, director of the Multicultural Community Center in Brattleboro which falls under the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
Last year, his group projected 100 Afghans would be coming to the area. Between Jan. 3 and Feb. 18, 92 arrived.
That phase of resettlement is closed now. Wiah said many of the refugees were housed on the SIT Graduate Institute campus and 67 have moved into permanent housing in Bennington, Brattleboro, Guilford and Bellow Falls.
“We are working to move the remaining 25 into permanent housing,” he said.
His group is in talks with the U.S. State Department and Vermont State Refugee Office about the next phase of Afghan resettlement efforts. About 30 individuals are anticipated to arrive then, mostly relatives of the first refugees to come, but the timeline is unclear.
Wiah also anticipates refugees from other places around the world will start arriving this year. He said ECDC will update the community once it has more information.
The Rev. Scott Couper of Centre Congregational Church recounted other faith communities becoming co-sponsors ahead of his.
“St. Michael’s Episcopal took the lead,” he said. “The Brattleboro Area Jewish Community took up the mantle.”
Couper’s congregation didn’t feel they had the financial or human resources to aid in the same capacity, although they did eventually became part of a co-sponsorship group. They began thinking about the needs of the new refugees, specifically about worshipping.
Afghans are mostly Muslim and will want to pray, Couper said, but trips to nearby mosques in the region would require hours and hours of commuting. His congregation decided to offer up space in the downtown Brattleboro church for prayer.
Working with St. Michael’s, Centre Congregational created a “store” where the Afghan community or anyone else could pick up free donated items. What started as a collection of winter gear has morphed to meet many other needs.
Food also is provided to the refugees through the Loaves & Fishes food pantry at Centre Congregational, another ministry project between the two churches.
In his Brooks House apartment, Couper is hosting a young refugee the Afghan community has chosen to be their imam or religious leader. Couper said he and his roommate play lots of Charades and Pictionary.
His roommate doesn’t speak English so they use a Google service to translate between Dari and English. Couper also accompanies him to the church at very early morning hours for worship rituals.
“I’m literally in my pajamas with my coat on walking across the street letting him in,” he said.
The imam recites the Quran from memory. Couper enjoys listening to his roommate during his worship rituals, comparing it to Gregorian or Buddhist chants.
Mostly everything was removed from the room at the church where worshipping occurs.
“It’s simply a blank, empty space,” Couper said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whereas in Christianity, we can have images, stained glass images, crosses, ornamentation. They cannot.”
In the room, the carpet was shampooed and a rug placed in the middle. Worship rituals are done on the floor.
When Couper was a student at SIT Graduate Institute studying in northern Nigeria, he would visit a mosque with his coworkers. When he pastored in Durban in South Africa, he would hear worship from mosques in the neighborhood when his congregation was singing hymns.
“I really believe the more I learn about Islam, the more of a committed Christian I am,” he said, explaining that Christianity came out of Judaism, then Islam came from the other religions. “The deeper I get into learning Islam ... the more I value and understand my own faith.”
Gabriella Martin, coordinator of the United Church of Christ co-sponsorship group including Centre Congregational as well as First Congregational Church of West Brattleboro and Dummerston Congregational Church, said her group supports a family of five who arrived Feb. 14 with three children ages 14, 12 and 8. They have participated in Winter Carnival activities, visited the ice shanties at Retreat Meadows and attended a circus production.
“We’ve had a volunteer take them around Brattleboro and show them the whole downtown and we’ve also taken them grocery shopping,” Martin said, noting that the children started school this week and the family is among others temporarily living at SIT.
Co-sponsorship groups have volunteers focusing on education, health, cultural adjustment, transportation and employment. Case managers help with food stamps and other things.
As a coordinator, Martin hosts weekly meetings via Zoom and acts as the liaison between the group and the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
“It’s been really nice to see our volunteers building relationships with this family that are so meaningful and feel so organic,” she said, describing how all the co-sponsorship groups are acting as “an interconnected web of volunteers” who share information and support each other.
Ruben Garza, executive director of United Way of Windham County, is hosting a refugee at his home.
“He and I do what housemates do,” he said.
Together, they dropped a friend off at the airport then went to the mall and got Lebanese food.
“He’s starting a new job today at Against the Grain,” Garza said. “It’s amazing.”
Garza described his housemate being shy but opening up over the last six weeks since his arrival and moving around in the community with a lot more confidence now. His housemate recently got a bank account at Brattleboro Savings & Loan, Medicaid insurance and a social security number.
“He got his first haircut in Brattleboro not too long ago,” Garza said. “He’s looking good and feeling good.”
Garza commended Against the Grain in Brattleboro for paying the refugees a livable wage.
“They’re really kicking butt,” he said. “That’s the type of opportunity that’s a dream opportunity for someone who came with nothing.”
With empty space at his house, Garza jumped at the chance to host a refugee. He was a little angry about the outcry from those who called for taking in the people already living here.
“What I saw at least was a whole bunch of people in this community who aren’t traditionally interested in being landlords but they were like, ‘I would open up for this cause,’” he said.
Lise Sparrow, former pastor at Guilford Community Church, is involved with St. Michael’s Circles of Support, which is working with four Afghan families. She’s helping support one of three families currently living at the Wheeler House at Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro, which previously housed a Phoenix House residential program for women until the group closed its Vermont locations in November.
Sparrow said since Phoenix House had to leave quickly, her group walked into a “very clinical setting.” They have turned some offices into bedrooms and began hosting refugees there March 1.
The families needed to learn how to use appliances in the house.
“Those are things that are not familiar to them in their culture,” Sparrow said.
Lisa Whitney, director of campus operations at the Prouty center, said the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program is covering the six-month lease for the Wheeler House.
“We’re thinking of it as a kind of transitional space,” she said. “Thinking about what it was before with Phoenix House, there is a clinical feel in the house so it’s not a perfect situation but it does have housing for 14 people. In the situation we’re in in the community, it’s really hard to find that so I think folks have done a great job just knowing it’s not perfect and embracing that it’s housing and figuring it out. I think that’s a testament to ECDC and the really strong volunteer structure and the families.”
Staff at the Prouty Center are trying to assist with local families who need better housing but also consider refugee resettlement a priority, Whitney said. Her organization is developing plans to bring more housing to the campus in a partnership with Delta Vermont.
Having watched volunteers support refugee families in different ways, Whitney said, “They’re strong advocates and have worked extremely hard to get these people settled. They are dedicated to making sure these families get what they need in a caring and compassionate way. They are essential pieces of the puzzle.”
Sparrow said she had fun going with the family to the Brattleboro Food Co-op, where they began figuring out what their spices are called in the U.S.
“They’ll be learning what grocery stores have what they want,” she said.
Sparrow said children are learning English at school and mothers are taking language classes at SIT but since fathers are working during the day, they’ll need to take classes at Vermont Adult Learning or learn through conversations in the community.
With her husband in charge of refugee programs at SIT in the 1980s, Sparrow was involved when southeastern Asians arrived locally back then.
“A lot of the issues are the same, in fact, because they are people of color and some, not all of them, are professionals,” she said. “Some were translators for the U.S. Army or nonprofits. They have good English.”
Sparrow has noticed Afghan women always defer to the men and they are used to being more secluded.
“It’s sort of shocking for them to be expected more in public,” she said. “I don’t know how that will play out.”
Scott Aronowitz, program coordinator for Brattleboro Area Jewish Community’s New Neighbors volunteer group, described being “really impressed” by the resettlement effort.
“There’s obstacles to be overcome but there’s a lot of really dedicated people,” he said, adding that ECDC connected with other organizations but had to set up its own office locally for the project. “They’ve done a really remarkable job in my opinion.”
Most of the volunteers in the BAJC’s group are members of the synagogue. The group is supporting a family of five who just moved out of SIT into a house in Brattleboro this month.
“A lot of the stuff winds up being essential things we need to take care of like trips to the doctor or visits to the school,” Aronowitz said.
The family attended Winter Carnival activities and the annual Harris Hill Ski Jump event. Aronowitz anticipates his group will make arrangements to get them to worship services for upcoming Muslim holidays.
Co-sponsorship groups around the country have an obligation to collect donations and raise $3,000 for a family or to spread around, Aronowitz said. Having successfully secured more funds than were needed, he said, “We are capable of handling another family in the future or helping another group who might not be able to raise the money themselves or has a volunteer willing to put in the hours.”
Jen Stromsten, director of programs at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., said her group got a grant from the Vermont Department of Labor for translation services and other needs related to getting refugees into the workforce. A refugee who helped with resettlement services in Afghanistan is paid to assist at businesses where new cohorts of refugees begin working including Against the Grain, Cersosimo Lumber Company and Vermont Plank Flooring.
“The employers are helping with transportation,” Stromsten said. “They’re all learning a lot about cultural stuff. Some of the crews need space for worship during the day. The needs are just varied.”
Stromsten said the biggest challenge is transportation, and any Vermonter who can’t afford a private vehicle faces such obstacles. Her group is finding volunteers and vans to assist.
A lot of employers are interested in hiring refugees, Stromsten said. Her group wants them to be mindful that refugees are trying to gain stability, getting children to school, settling into housing and learning English.
Case managers are guiding refugees in making important decisions on what to prioritize, Stromsten said.
“We’re talking about people who are sending money home that’s keeping people alive in Afghanistan,” she said. “They’re really focused on not only achieving independence. When they wake up on a day and don’t make money they can send home, they feel that. They feel they are letting people down that they left behind in this difficult situation.”
While navigating difficulties, Stromsten also finds the work “super rewarding.” She described incidents in which local people uninvolved in the resettlement efforts have been patients in unexpected ways.