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Helping Refugee Families Make a New Home

By Annie Landenberger

The apartment had been intended as temporary shelter, but eight months after a family of Afghan refugees moved in, it shows signs of hominess, especially when Zakira, a first-year high school student, whose family fled Afghanistan at the end of the U.S. war there, set out pistachios and olives for tea.

“School is very good,” said Zakira, an aspiring cardiologist whose family came to Brattleboro in February as part of what was then known as the St. Michael’s Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Ministry at St. Michael’s, Brattleboro. Three other families had arrived a month earlier. The long process of adjusting to American life has not always been smooth, but she has made friends, she said, one of whom is a fellow refugee—a girl from Honduras—who is teaching Zakira Spanish while they both learn English. 

There was an explosion at her old school when she still lived in Afghanistan, and its 600 female students no longer felt safe, Zakira said. She does not miss living with such stress, but she misses her family. Her father and brother are still in Kabul, as is her grandmother.

The story of Zakira, her family and the other Afghan refugees who are recreating their lives in southeastern Vermont exemplifies the hope, heartache and hard work that have characterized St. Michael’s refugee resettlement ministry since last summer, when it was no more than the fond hope of parishioners Jeff Lewis and the late Daniel Dobson.

The ministry had its beginnings when Lewis, former executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), Dobson, and a small group of fellow parishioners attended a presentation, hosted by BDCC, which was working with the Ethiopian Community Development Council, (ECDC), a worldwide refugee resettlement program to resettle Afghan refugees in southern Vermont.

Lewis and Dobson brought the idea of co-sponsoring refugee families to St. Michael’s vestry in September, and received its resounding approval. By January 10, the first group of refugees arrived on the campus of the School for International Training, where the St. Michael’s team greeted them, and made sure they had bedding, halal meat in the kitchen, dishes, toiletries, extra blankets, toys and more. Zakira’s family arrived six weeks later.

For the St. Michael’s team, led by Lewis, Dobson and the Rev. Jean Smith, a priest associate at the parish, the work in those early months was “feverish” Smith said, as they raised money, collected furniture and housewares, purchased food appropriate for Afghan tastes and traditions, meet with schools and coordinated with hospitals, Medicaid and other benefits.

To manage all the moving parts to work with four families, Lewis and the team developed a flowchart that has become a model for other organizations supporting refugee families. The chart identifies each family’s “circle of support,” including a point person, and a contact person for categories like education, culture, nesting/welcoming, transportation, health, food, and clothing. Each circle of support works with a case manager from ECDC and resource team leaders under who are teams for volunteer coordination, team leadership, and fundraising.

The parish’s efforts are pathbreaking in two important ways. “It’s one of first times efforts have brought refugees to a rural area,” said Thomas Huddleston, who was a parishioner at St. Michael’s and manager of co-sponsorships at EDCD when the refugee families arrived. “Usually, such resettlement is in urban area for obvious reasons.” The second unique aspect, he said, “is this co-sponsorship model in which groups assume responsibility for a family.”

The results, so far, are encouraging.

“We’ve been extraordinarily impressed with the level of welcome the refugees have received, and with practical help offered in finding housing and work,” said Huddleston, who recently moved from Brattleboro. “Several workplaces have made efforts to hire Afghans and to discern how to work effectively with them.” Area schools have responded well, too, and language learning is happening among all age groups. Securing housing has been an ongoing challenge, he added, but St. Michael’s parishioners such as Chris Hart, an expert in public housing, have been helpful in the process.

“It’s been a transformative experience for all involved,” Huddleston said. “Feeling what it means to be in community with strangers.”

Zakira and her siblings are enjoying school, but her mother, Zakiah, said she found learning English to be tough, especially because she is studying medical terminology to qualify as a midwife, which was her career in Afghanistan. “It’s like being a baby again,” she said, “learning all over again.”

Amir, Zakiah’s brother, on the other hand, came to the United States already well-versed in English, and is using his extensive language skills to work for BDCC as it supports other Afghan refugees in southern Vermont.

Family members said they and all of the refugee families are grateful that a communal gathering place has been designated for them and that they have space for daily prayer.

As the Afghans are learning about the United States the people of St. Michael’s are learning not only about the Afghans, but about the nature of the complex work of refugee resettlement.

“I think that one of the mistakes I made as I began my volunteer work with our new Afghan neighbors was to assume that this collection of nearly 100 people was a homogeneous group,” Nancy Ames, a volunteer said. “The truth is, their Afghan heritage is the only thing they share in common. They speak three different languages. Some are conservative, and some are liberal. Some live in nuclear family units, and others have multi-generational, extended families living under one roof. We have Afghans who were illiterate in their own languages, as well as trained midwives and lawyers. In other words, the members of our Afghan community look pretty much like any 100 randomly chosen people in our community.”

In a September update to the parish, Ames reported that the refugees and volunteers had known each other long enough to have experienced life-marking moments of joy and sadness together. One Afghan father had recently gotten is driver’s license. A family had found a new apartment. A toddler was learning English. And two months earlier, an Afghan mother had given birth to a baby boy within hours of the death of Daniel Dobson, who helped found the ministry.

The parish’s most recent refugee ministry update reported that Dobson’s daughter Ann “fulfilled his wish” by donating $30,000 to what St. Michael’s has since renamed the Dobson Refugee Ministry.

“The work with refugees, people in exile, is not a service project, unless we mean God’s service to us for our growth in faith,” the Rev. Smith said. “It is an exercise in hopeful imagination. It is ministry, and like all ministry, an adventure in faith.”

Updates on St. Michael’s Refugee Ministry’s work are included in the parish’s newsletter, The Guardian. For more information on resettlement ministry contact Jeff Lewis at 802-579-3877 or the Rev. Jean Smith.

Photo by Lisa Sparrow

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