African refugee grows homeland's bitter eggplants in Vermont

Janine Ndagijimana displays African eggplant also called bitter ball or garden egg, harvested from her field in Colchester. Far from the refugee camps where she once lived, Ndagijimana has developed a thriving small farm business, growing African eggplants in Vermont and selling them around the country.

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On the occasion of International Refugee Day (June 20), organized each year by the United Nations, our state and the Brattleboro area have reason to feel good about the opportunities ahead which can only help others while also benefiting ourselves.

In his announcement urging the U.S. State Department to send more refugees to Vermont, Gov. Scott made a strong economic case for the integral role refugees can play in growing the state’s economy. He proposed a sensible workforce development strategy to attract new workers to meet the challenges we face with a declining population.

Senator Leahy, a longtime supporter of refugee rights, commended the initiative stating, “Providing refuge to the persecuted and the oppressed is neither a Democratic or a Republican value — it’s part of our shared history and Vermonters have always done their part, and more. Just as Vermonters have welcomed those seeking safety, refugees have enriched communities across our state, both economically and culturally.”

Since the establishment of the Refugee Resettlement Program in Vermont in the 1980s, the state, according to Gov. Scott, has welcomed over 8,000 refugees or about 1 percent of the total population, which is in decline. Nearly all of the refugees our state has accepted have resettled in Chittenden County, mainly in Burlington and Winooski.

Refugee resettlement in Brattleboro? Maybe.

Thanks in large part to the initiatives and coordination of Alex Beck and Adam Grinold of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), our community may soon welcome its first group of refugees from Ethiopia as well as from other countries with displaced populations. (For a glimpse into the severity of the crisis in Ethiopia, look up the broadcast “I Have Lost Everything: Ethiopian Refugees Flee For Their Lives,” Eyden Peralta, NPR, 12/12/20. For information on the more than 26 million refugees in the world, go to the UN Refugee Agency web page at www.unhcr.org.)

A recent Zoom meeting led by BDCC revealed how deeply committed our community is to becoming a host site for refugees. Among the nearly 70 participants was Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, CEO and founder of the Ethiopian Community Development Council. (It should be noted that while the roots of the ECDC are from Ethiopia, the organization now resettles refugees of all different nationalities). Dr. Teferra was impressed by the high level of enthusiasm expressed by so many of our community service organizations, business leaders, and state representatives. Among the participants were:

• Representatives from World Learning’s SIT Graduate Institute which has a long history in supporting refugee resettlement going back to the early 1980s.

• Members of the Brattleboro Select board

• SEVCA

• United Way

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• Vermont Adult Learning

• Windham NAACP

• Brattleboro Housing Authority

• Several state legislators (including our own Representative Emily Kornheiser)

The hope is that the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) will open a branch office in Brattleboro that will support the relocation of refugees to our area within a year or so. Welcoming refugees to Brattleboro would not only be the compassionate, right thing to do, it would also address the severe labor shortage in our area in a number of industries.

Undoubtedly, our schools would also benefit from a more diverse student population. Soon after the BDCC meeting, the WSESD board passed a resolution in support of the initiative. The resolution, available on the WSESD website, begins:

“Recognizing the value that students from diverse backgrounds bring to our classrooms and realizing how well-positioned WSESD schools are to provide exceptional education, English language training, and social and emotional support to the children of refugees, the Windham Southeast Supervisory District enthusiastically supports the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s (ECDC) proposal to establish a branch office to initiate a Reception and Placement program in support of refugee resettlement in the Brattleboro area.”

One of the main challenges raised in the meeting was housing. We are well aware that our area is facing a serious shortage of affordable housing. However, this week’s news from Montpelier brought some encouraging news. A good part of the $600 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act may be used to address the housing shortage in Vermont. Hopefully, some of this will come to our area to construct affordable housing for those now homeless as well as for newly arrived families.

Sadly for those now sitting in refugee camps, the relocation process is a slow one, normally taking a year to 18 months, sometimes much longer, but, assuming all goes well in establishing an ECDC branch in Brattleboro and given the frequency of the processes already underway, it is possible that we could see resettlement of the first families as early as October. Time will tell.

Inevitably, there may be the perception by some that new arrivals will burden the taxpayer. The facts tell a different story. In 2015, 75 percent of the employable adults who resettled in Vermont were self-sufficient, contributing members of their communities within three months of arrival! By eight months after arrival, that figure jumps to 88 percent (from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program website). But whether we look at this through the lens of economic development or educational enrichment or simply as a matter reflecting our common value as a compassionate community, the arrival of small groups of refugees can only be a win-win situation for everyone.

Tim Maciel writes from Brattleboro. Tim and his wife, Kathleen Maceda, are former refugee resettlement workers who served Southeast Asian refugees for nearly four years with the International Catholic Migration Commission in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center. Tim can be reached by email at tmtmaciel@gmail.com.