MONTPELIER — In an announcement that Vermont is approved to welcome as many as 100 Afghans in the weeks ahead, Gov. Phil Scott said the Ethiopian Community Development Council was given the greenlight to open a field office in Brattleboro and would be seeking approval to resettle 25 Afghans in the coming months.
“We have a moral obligation to help the people of Afghanistan, who did so much to help us in the war on terror,” Scott said Thursday in a statement. “In addition to this being the right thing to do, we know that welcoming more refugees also strengthens communities, schools, our workforce, culture and economy.”
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants approved plans for the state, and the U.S. State Department signed off on plans for the local field office.
“It is an honor to help those who have helped our service members overseas, and it is a wonderful opportunity for Vermont’s communities and for our businesses who are very interested in expanding our workforce and filling our job vacancies,” Tracy Dolan, the director of the State Refugee Office in Vermont, said in a statement. “We are learning from our colleagues at military bases and arrival centers across the country that employment is one of the highest priorities mentioned by these newly arriving Afghans. They are eager to find jobs and rebuild their lives.”
According to the announcement, the committee’s Vermont office is anticipated to work closely with the state, schools, employers, landlords, and health and social service programs to meet the needs of the refugees and community. Before arriving in Vermont, Afghans are going to have to go through medical and security screenings, and will be authorized to work.
Ethiopian Community Development Council is an agency responsible for resettling refugees from around the world. The group hired Joe Wiah, who will begin Monday as director of the Brattleboro office.
Jessica Chapman, community outreach manager at the council, thanked many partners in the process, including Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.
“After many months of planning and discussions, we look forward to starting the work of welcoming refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders to the southern part of Vermont,” Chapman said in a statement.
Brattleboro Select Board Vice Chairman Ian Goodnow said he’s “elated” about the news. At an August board meeting where the development agency presented plans, he had spoken about how important it is for Vermont to be open to welcoming refugees.
Goodnow said Thursday that while the project is not a municipal initiative, he plans to do everything in his power to support and welcome the new community members.
“Gosh, who is more worthy and welcome than these people who have helped us and worked with us over the last 20 years?” he said. “I think it’s only a good thing for Brattleboro and the state. And I’m grateful to the people who have made that possible and sort of expedited it.”
Adam Grinold, executive director of nonprofit agency, said like everything related to the recent refugee situation in Afghanistan, “all things are moving quickly.”
“It’s great to see the organizations that are dedicated to supporting refugees like ECDC and USCRI respond so quickly to welcome Afghan refugees in Vermont,” he said, adding that BDCC looks forward to continuing to support the refugee council and preparing to welcome refugees.
His group will be pointing to resources and making connections with other organization. Grinold said Alex Beck, Welcoming Communities manager at the credit corporation, “will be supporting refugee relocation in general.”
“It’s a lot of work for a really long time, and I think our major goal is letting folks know that we didn’t start this work when we heard about the Afghan crisis,” Beck said of Scott’s announcement. “The reality is this is two years of work happening now, so it’s very exciting.”
The refugee council is still seeking to bring in as many as 75 refugees each year, Beck said, but it’s unclear whether that will mean 100 including the Afghan refugees.
“Refugees come with a different status than many of the Afghans we’re talking about right now,” he said. “Essentially, a separate federal program was established to support Afghans whereas the refugee resettlement is something that has always been in place and that’s something we’ve been working on for a really long time now.”
Resettlement occurs through existing refugee locations, Beck said. The 100 Afghan refugees approved for Vermont is for a site based in Chittenden County.
Agencies try to resettle refugees within 100 miles of a field office, Beck said, noting that is why the effort to open a field office in Brattleboro started.
“We’re excited for this opportunity,” he said. “I think now is where we’re really going to start mobilizing the community, engaging the volunteers.”
Beck counted hundreds of people who have volunteered to assist in different capacities. He said the plan is to hold a Zoom session to discuss next steps.
“From there, the work happens, and we transition from planning to do,” he said. “And I think that’s really exciting.”