A welcoming sight

Joe Wiah cuts the ribbon during Friday’s celebration of the refugee-resettlement office in Brattleboro. Wiah is director of the new facility, to be known as the Multicultural Community Center.

BRATTLEBORO — Dora Urujeni came to Vermont from Rwanda in September 2017 as a student at the School for International Training Graduate Institute.

One year after starting a master’s program at the Brattleboro school, which typically takes students three years to complete, she’d earned her degree. But the experience was not without challenges, according to Urujeni, who said she struggled to find child care for her young son while she was in class.

Now a case manager at the Brattleboro nonprofit Community Asylum Seekers Project, Urujeni was on hand Friday afternoon to share her immigrant experience and help open a new refugee-resettlement office in town, where up to 100 Afghan immigrants could arrive in the coming months. That’s up from the 25 people who’d previously been expected after the federal government requested resettlement groups consider accepting additional Afghan refugees due to the high number in the U.S., according to Tracy Dolan, the state refugee coordinator.

“Integration is not one-way,” Urujeni told guests, including state and federal officials, at the ribbon-cutting event on Cotton Mill Hill. “It’s two-ways. … They need a sense of belonging. They want to feel welcome.”

The new administrative office on Putney Road, set to open Monday, will be run by a recently established local branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a Virginia-based agency authorized to resettle refugees from around the world.

ECDC has been approved by the federal government to bring 100 Afghans to Brattleboro — part of a national effort, dubbed Operation Allies Welcome, to help those fleeing the humanitarian crisis in that country.

That crisis erupted in August when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Tens of thousands of people have since fled the country, according to media reports.

Together, ECDC and a Vermont branch of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants plan to resettle up to 200 Afghans in the state, Dolan said Friday. Just one person has arrived to date, she said.

The new ECDC facility in Brattleboro — to be known as the Multicultural Community Center — will help staff support the local arrivals as well as other refugees the Brattleboro branch may also accept, according to center director Joe Wiah. It is the national organization’s fifth branch location.

The first Afghan migrants, most of whom Dolan said have already arrived in the U.S., could get to Brattleboro by the end of November, according to Wiah. Despite ECDC’s own mission to support them in their new home, he urged guests at the ribbon-cutting to also lend a hand, noting that the Afghans will need shelter, jobs, education and more.

“I cannot do it all, and ECDC cannot do it alone,” he said. “… We as a community must collectively find solutions.”

Across the river, New Hampshire expects to welcome 175 Afghans, according to the state’s refugee coordinator, Barbara Seebart.

That effort will be led by the Granite State’s two resettlement agencies: the International Institute of New England in Manchester and Ascentria Care Alliance in Concord. Neither has any immediate plans to settle any Afghans in the Keene area, Seebart said earlier this week.

Still, immigration advocates in the Monadnock Region say local communities are ready to accept new arrivals, if needed.

The state’s resettlement agencies typically try to place refugee families from a single country in the same, often urban, area, according to Judy Reed, a member of the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership (KIRP).

But with a lack of available housing statewide, she said, those agencies are now “looking further afield” for resettlement destinations in more rural parts of the state. Reed, who also belongs to the Keene-based nonprofit Project Home, which offers housing and financial support to people seeking asylum in the U.S., said she recently spoke with Seebart about the possibility of hosting Afghan evacuees in the area.

“I assured her there are a lot of people in this community asking about that and wanting to help,” she said.

But Project Home has limited capacity to sponsor housing for new arrivals, Reed said, because it’s already hosting six asylum-seeking families — most of them from Central America and one from Rwanda.

KIRP members, though, are very interested in helping Afghan arrivals find a home in the Monadnock Region “if and when they do turn up here,” she said.

Of the 175 Afghan evacuees slated to come to New Hampshire, only three have arrived so far, Seebart said Friday. No date has been set for the other arrivals, she said.

In the meantime, local preparations are underway to welcome Afghan migrants.

At the ribbon-cutting event Friday, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., lauded ECDC and other community groups, such as the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., for helping people in need.

Welch said Americans have an obligation to support Afghan refugees, since the U.S. war effort — which many of them aided — caused much suffering in their home country. He added that the immigrants will stimulate the local economy by helping fill jobs. And welcoming the new arrivals to Brattleboro, Welch said, also shows an embrace of common humanity.

“We are blessed in Vermont because we do care about one another, and it’s important to us to care even about people we don’t know,” he said.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.

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