National Refugee Resettlement Group Hopes To Pilot Program In Brattleboro
A refugee resettlement group hopes Brattleboro will be home to a new pilot program that aims to resettle refugees in smaller, more rural communities across the United States.The group says it chose Brattleboro because of strong community support for the program. If everything falls into place, the first families could arrive in Windham County before the end of this year.
The Trump Administration put strict limitations on the US Refugee resettlement program, and the number of refugees entering the United States hit an all-time low last year.
President Biden says he’ll reopen the program and increase the number of refugees who are allowed into the United States.
Tsehaye Tefera is founder of the Ethiopian Development Community Council, one of nine agencies that work with the State Department to resettle refugees in the United States.
And he says, with the number of refugees expected to go up next year, it’s the perfect time to try something new.
“Most of our resettlement sites are in big cities,” Tefera said. “And if we want to create integration of refugees, having them only in big cities where they would be congregating among themselves, only, is not going to help long-term integration.”
"When you have a smaller town where, you know, everybody knows everybody, I think the chances are that there is a possibility for people to know one another, create a bond, and learn from one another."- Tsehaye Tefera, Ethiopian Community Development Council
Brattleboro and Wausau, Wis. are the only two small towns in the U.S. that the group has chosen to run the new program.
“When you have a smaller town where, you know, everybody knows everybody, I think the chances are that there is a possibility for people to know one another, create a bond, and learn from one another,” he said. “That can happen, really. If it is done carefully, then this will be a good strategy, and we ... hope it will work. I think it will work. This will be really a new initiative for us.”
The plan requires federal approval, and it’s too early at this point to determine where the refugees might come from.
But if he gets the go-ahead, he says the group could open its office in Brattleboro later this year.
Because the program relies on host families to support the New Americans, Tefera says he needs buy-in from the community, before the first refugee arrives.
And so far Tefera says Brattleboro appears ready to support the work. He has also already opened discussions with housing, transportation, economic development and education groups in Vermont.
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, an economic development group, has been leading the effort to bring the refugees to Windham County.
BDCC executive director Adam Grinold says his group held a conference call with about 50 people recently, to discuss the plan.
“A big part of this is really being transparent, to get all of the different groups, the interested humanitarian nonprofits, to come to the table to be part of that team,” Grinold said.
"I get excited about Brattleboro being a community that welcomes people in distress, that need safety. And so, I think we have to solve this problem, to make room for being good citizens of the world. But I don't think it'll be easy." - Elizabeth Bridgewater, Windham and Windsor Housing Trust
But refugee resettlement efforts in Vermont have not been without controversy.
About five years ago, the mayor of Rutland announced that he wanted to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in his city, citing a lot of the same reasons organizers in Brattleboro are now bringing up.
At the time, there was support in Rutland, but also a lot of opposition.
In the end, only a handful of Syrians ended up resettling in Rutland and the mayor was voted out of office.
Grinold says Vermont is still facing a demographic crisis. Vermont is one of the oldest, and whitest states in the country.
Lots of companies can’t find workers to fill jobs, and Grinold says the refugee resettlement program is one way to bring new people to the state, even though there are plenty of obstacles to overcome.
“It’ll be a challenge. It’ll be a challenge for sure,” says Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust. “There’s a housing crisis right now.”
Bridgewater was on that recent phone call with regional and state leaders.
She says while it’s not an ideal time, with such a tight housing market, there was a feeling among the folks on the call that they wanted to make this happen, regardless of the challenges.
“I think about our world, as a whole, and how many people are in distress in other parts of our world, and need safety,” Bridgewater said. “And so, when I think about it in that context, I get excited about it. I get excited about Brattleboro being a community that welcomes people in distress, that need safety. And so, I think we have to solve this problem, to make room for being good citizens of the world. But I don’t think it’ll be easy.”
"As a community and as a town government, we've been really clear and really explicit and transparent about our commitment to racial equity, social equity." - Peter Ellwell, Brattleboro town manager
Brattleboro town manager Peter Elwell says he knows there will be some pushback and tough questions to answer.
But he says the plan fits in with the town’s focus on improving diversity and equity in one of the whitest states in the country.
“As a community and as a town government, we’ve been really clear and really explicit and transparent about our commitment to racial equity, social equity,” Elwell said. “And so it’s completely consistent with that, that we would enthusiastically embrace being an important and active player in a communitywide effort to make Brattleboro a good, positive, safe place for resettlement of refugees.”
Earlier this year Gov. Phil Scott asked the State Department to increase the number of refugees allowed into Vermont.
In his letter, Scott called refugee resettlement, “an integral part of our efforts to grow Vermont’s economy.”
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