The Burlington area is a hub for refugees and immigrants in Vermont, but area officials and businesses are concerned about this population shrinking. Recent federal restrictions have limited the number of refugees coming to the state and there's another problem too: some New Americans are choosing to leave Vermont.
Burlington Employment Agency is in a non-descript building in Burlington’s Old North End — upstairs from an Asian grocery store and down the hall from a shop filled with kids clothes and gold costume jewelry. It’s sparse office is filled with natural light from big windows that face the street, and chairs line each wall. On a recent Thursday, Bhuwan Sharma sat at a large wood desk with a stack of envelopes next to him. It was pay day, and every 15 minutes someone walked through the door looking to collect their check.
Sharma co-owns Burlington Employment Agency, a temporary employment agency that finds jobs for New Americans. On a typical day, people stop by looking for jobs, or for help with things like social security paperwork or housing applications. People often stop by just to chat, after picking up groceries downstairs.
“It’s almost like a big family working together and that’s something we’ve consciously tried to do, and it works in our favor,” said Sharma.
Sharma immigrated from Nepal seven years ago on a diversity visa. Many of his approximately 80 clients are Bhutanese-Nepali, the largest group of refugees in Vermont. They started arriving in the state about 10 years ago from refugee camps in Nepal after being expelled from Bhutan as part of an ethnic cleansing. Today, more than 2,500 Bhutanese-Nepali people live in the Burlington area. Sharma saw a business opportunity in connecting them with local employers.
“We took off from the word go,” he said. “When we started our business, we did very well from the first year.”
However, three years after starting the agency, business has plateaued. Sharma said the biggest factor for this is that many of his clients are moving from Vermont to Columbus, Ohio, which is home to the largest Bhutanese-Nepali community outside of Southeast Asia. More than 40 Bhutanese-Nepali families, or about 200 people, have relocated to Ohio in recent years, according to refugee advocates.
This has state officials and local businesses concerned for a couple of reasons. First, Vermont is an aging state where attracting and retaining residents is critical. Second, federal restrictions on refugees have decreased the number of arrivals to the state to the lowest it’s been in a decade. Just around 130 refugees resettled in Vermont last year — a third of the number that arrived in 2016, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (U.S.C.R.I).
Plenty of refugees have left Vermont for other states in the past, according to Amila Merdzanovic, the Director of the U.S.C.R.I. in Vermont. But, she said, the declining rate of refugees entering Vermont makes secondary migration a bigger concern.
“When you have an extended family pick up and move, that’s anywhere from five to ten to fifteen employable adults that are leaving those jobs,” said Merdzanovic. “And when our overall numbers are declining there isn’t a sort of an equal out-migration offset by new arrivals.”
For the past decade, Vermont’s refugee numbers have mostly been a wash, with the same number of people leaving the state as arriving, according to Pablo Bose, a geography professor at the University of Vermont who studies refugee resettlement. But federal refugee restrictions have thrown that balance out of whack, said Bose. He said the trend of Bhutanese-Nepali leaving Vermont is small but significant enough to keep an eye on.
“In a state like Vermont, and in places like Burlington, where you have aging populations — you have young people leaving the state — refugees really bring new talent and just a lot of potential for growth,” he said.
Vermont is not the only state to see its Bhutanese-Nepali community leave for the Columbus area, according to Jhumanath Acharya, a resettlement case manager at Community Refugee & Immigration Services in Columbus. Acharya helps new arrivals get set up with housing, healthcare, and other social services. He’s Bhutanese-Nepali and has family in Vermont.
“Most of the refugees – including Bhutanese refugees – the first thing they wanted to have is, kind of, to think how I can be self-sufficient?” he said. “Where is the best place that I can work and raise my family? Where can I buy the house? What does it look like that I can call my future home?”
Columbus checks off a lot of the boxes, according to Acharya. There are plenty of manufacturing jobs that don’t require employees to speak English, housing is cheap, and there’s open land where families can build homes to live near each other. The local government is supportive of refugees, Acharya said, pointing to a grant the Columbus City Council recently awarded to a community center that serves the region’s Bhutanese and Nepali population after their federal funding was slashed. But he said it’s the large, close-knit community that makes Columbus so welcoming.
“There’s a tendency of staying closer to family and friends, to get a sense of social support for any situation and hardships,” he said.
Locally, Winooski has capitalized on the growth that comes with refugees. It’s the most diverse city in Vermont. Eighteen percent of Winooski’s population was born outside the U.S. and more than 20 languages are spoken in its schools. That’s part of the city's draw, according to Winooski City Manager Jessie Baker.
“People choose to live in Winooski because they like to be surrounded by culture, and different languages and perspectives,” she said. “And if we see that wane, we are losing a strategic advantage we have as a community.”
While Winooski is one of the few cities in Vermont that’s growing, Baker said the city is suffering from the decrease in new arrivals over the last couple years. The school district is concerned that fewer refugees could lead to a drop in enrollment, she said, and the biggest challenge is one of economic development.
“We have businesses here in this city who have built employment tracks, around waves of immigration – so folks coming in, getting oriented, and then moving up a professional ladder," she said.
Burlington-based Rhino Foods is one local business that’s concerned about the decrease in refugees. It's a food manufacturer that makes specialty baked goods, including the cookie dough that goes in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. New Americans make up 37 percent of its workforce. Employees hail from around the world, including Nepal, Bosnia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many start in entry-level distribution and sanitation jobs, before moving up. Caitlin Goss, director of People and Culture at Rhino said the company recently lost two longtime employees — Nepalese brothers — who moved to New York where they were able to purchase a home. She's worried about how secondary migration out of Vermont could have a “cascading effect” for area businesses.
“Not only might Rhino be losing two great employees, some of their family was working at other manufacturing companies down the road,” said Goss. “So that’s really hard as we think about all the investment that people have made in training and in skill.”
Back at the Burlington Employment Agency, even owner Bhuwan Sharma is exploring opportunities in Ohio.
“If things slow down here, we have to make it up somewhere else. And that’s a lucrative market I guess,” he said.
For now, he’s focused on coming up with creative ways to diversify his local client base. He'd like to get work for more native Vermonters.