BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro was lauded as a welcoming community during the opening of a refugee resettlement office on Friday.
But opening arms to people who have been forced from their homes is not enough, said Dora Urujeni, a Rwandan who was born in a refugee camp in the Republic of Congo.
“I want to invite my fellow Vermonters to think of changing the perception, [about] who are these people who are coming?” she said. “These people are fleeing from traumatic situations ... they need a place of belonging. They want to feel welcomed. ... [But] I want to invite Vermont to look at these people who have potential, skills and something they can offer to us.”
Urujeni, who spoke at the Cotton Mill during a celebration Friday afternoon for the opening of the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s Multicultural Community Center in Brattleboro, said it can be difficult to invite strangers into a town, but she asked that Vermonters “give up that fear and see that person as somebody who can teach you something, and you can learn from that person ...”
Refugees will be coming to Brattleboro carrying their own fear, said Urujeni, who came to Brattleboro to earn a master’s degree at the School of International Training and is now a case manager at the Community Asylum Seekers Project.
“They lost families, they lost houses, they lost the country, they lost everything,” she said.
Brattleboro is very good at making people feel at home, Urujeni said, a sentiment that was repeated by a number of speakers at the ceremony at the Cotton Mill.
“I know Vermont as a welcoming community,” said Joe Wiah, who left his native country of Liberia when he was 18 and who has lived in Vermont for nine years. Wiah was recently appointed the director of the Multicultural Community Center. “But I’ve never seen such collective commitment to refugee resettlement.”
He thanked the many people who have committed to opening their homes to refugees, to providing jobs for them, and acting as mentors, drivers and landlords to “soon-to-be new Americans.”
“The success of them will not be possible without the support of all of you here today,” Wiah said. “But I am confident that your commitment ... will make a noticeable difference.”
“This is historic for us,” said Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, president and CEO of the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
The center will be council’s fifth branch office, though the Brattleboro office will be the first in a rural community, Teferra said, and that is because members of the community worked hard to make it happen.
“It really takes everyone here to make this program work, and I am very grateful,” he said.
Teferra said up to 100 people in 25 families from Afghanistan will be arriving soon.
“Why is it that Vermonters want to help out so much?” asked U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont. One reason, he said, is they want to take responsibility for the policies of the United States that have resulted in people having to flee their homes in places like Syria and Afghanistan.
He also noted that Vermont needs people who can both benefit the economy and enliven the vitality of the Green Mountain state.
“And we do it for ourselves,” Welch said. “It’s in giving that we receive. ... We have responsibility so we have to step up and bear our share of the burden. We have an economy that depends upon having new people come ... but deep down, it’s our heart and it’s our soul. We need a way to express, through action, our desire to help others and welcome them into our community.”
Nancy Izzo Jackson, senior official for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said local community support is the cornerstone of the State Department’s resettlement program.
“Over the past two months, we have seen an incredible outpouring of support across the country ... from all walks of life, particularly our veterans for vulnerable Afghans,” she said.
She recalled receiving a letter from Gov. Phil Scott, calling for more refugees into Vermont.
“So I was delighted, but not surprised at all, to hear that Vermont raised its hand immediately,” Jackson said. “I am so grateful to Gov. Scott and the people of Vermont for opening your arms and hearts to the most vulnerable among us.”
Teferra also thanked the Shapiro Foundation, which is based in Boston, for providing the financial resources to make it happen.
Ed Shapiro credited his wife, Barbara, a graduate of the University of Vermont, for pointing out how Vermont’s Republican governor expressed his frustration at his own party’s unwillingness in welcoming more refugees to the country.
After hearing about Vermont and Vermont’s plea “that was falling upon deaf ears ... with the prior administration,” Shapiro spoke with Scott to ask him why.
“He said, ‘My own party was in the White House for four years, and every time I heard President Trump say we don’t want any refugees, I said Vermont does, bring them here.’ But it didn’t work. This commitment that the community, that the state made, that the people of Brattleboro made, that is an example of what is happening all across the country. The American people are rising up and saying we want to help.”
Adam Grinold, the executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., said the agency has been working with the state and community groups and volunteers to bring the Multicultural Community Center to Brattleboro as part of its Welcoming Communities program.
“So how exactly did an economic development organization come to be working on immigration systems building in southern, rural Vermont?” he asked.
Grinold said the last census “illuminated a lot of significant future demographic challenges for the region.”
“Since then, we have had this vision of increasing immigration for the region,” he said. “We made the decision to take some intentional steps to create a welcoming community.”
Over a period of two years, he said, the BDCC collected data, identified best practices, invited community partners to participate and created a coalition “of the willing and the eager.”
“This moment in time was a culmination of years of investment and building capacity, knowledge, local and state-wide networking,” Grinold said, and was done through the efforts of the Working Communities Team, consisting of members from CASP, the Windham Regional Commission, the Bennington County Regional Commission, the School for International Training, Southeast Vermont Transit, United Way of Windham County, and the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation.
He also thanked Alex Beck, the BDCC’s workforce and education program manager, for “operationalizing our dreams and aspirations for a welcoming community.”