afghan welcome

Members of the Bennington County Open Arms volunteer group are shown welcoming the first Afghan family upon their arrival in Bennington. Up to five families that left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last year are expected to be resettled in Bennington County.

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BENNINGTON — The first refugee family from Afghanistan is now living in Bennington, and four or five more families are expected to settle in Bennington County.

The families — among 100 expected in Vermont — left their homeland following the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the subsequent Taliban takeover in August. Many had worked for or with the Americans in Afghanistan or otherwise had reason to fear retaliation when the Taliban again seized control of the nation.

Thomas Huddleston, co-sponsorship manager at the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s Multicultural Community Center in Brattleboro, said the organization is working with Bennington County Open Arms and other volunteers to place families in Southern Vermont.

Now that the first family is settled in Bennington, efforts continue to secure housing for others. Vermont is expected to welcome its 100 families by the end of February.

The Ethiopian Community Development Council, of Washington, D.C., is working on a national level with the State Department to resettle refugees leaving Afghanistan.

LIVED ON BASES

Huddleston said the Afghan families had been living on U.S. military bases for four to five months before being informed where they would be residing next — often learning their destination in the states shortly before leaving the base.

“They are quite excited,” he said of Bennington’s new arrivals, “but they didn’t know much about Vermont before. We have been talking about Vermont, and driving them around and they are meeting people.”

The Banner has agreed not to name any of the new residents at this time, as some may have relatives still living in Afghanistan who might face retaliation.

The young family said its members are focusing on improving their English skills and finding employment, in part to help relatives eventually move to the United States.

YOUNG FAMILIES

In addition to securing housing for the families, Huddleston said his organization and assisting volunteer groups want to encourage Vermonters to help their new neighbors acclimate to the Green Mountain State.

That could involve volunteering to speak English with the Afghans, who may want to increase their fluency in the language.

Vermonters who might share similar life or employment experiences also are sought, Huddleston said. Military veterans, for instance, whether or not they served in Afghanistan, might find they have much in common with those who served with the Afghan forces.

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“A lot of them are veterans,” Huddleston said.

Some also have worked in health care or were teachers in their homeland.

The parents are typically between 20 to 40 years of age, he said, and have young children.

Because of the age range, there is the hope they can take advantage of Vermont’s outdoor recreation opportunities, he said, including skiing, hiking, swimming or boating.

“We would like people to show what they like about Vermont,” he said.

In addition to spending time with the new residents as they get used to a new region and culture, volunteers here and in the Brattleboro area have raised money through donations to assist the families.

In Bennington County, the United Church of Dorset and East Rupert has, for instance, acted as a financial sponsor for fund drives.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

"Bennington County Open Arms is incredibly grateful for the wide support of so many members of this community and the warm welcome that has been extended to our new neighbors by individuals, faith communities, local non-profits, businesses, and civic organizations - far too many to name here," said group member Grace Winslow in an email. "We are incredibly blessed by talented and thoughtful volunteers who have contributed energy, time, ingenuity, hard work, attentiveness, and great care; and we would welcome more volunteers."

She added, "Most of all we are thankful to our new neighbors for supporting the U.S. military and civil society missions in Afghanistan. They have paid an extraordinarily high price for their support of those missions, risking their safety and the safety of people whom they love just as much as the people of Bennington County love our own families, and losing their homeland and proximity to those loved ones as a result."

Winslow said BCOA is still searching for affordable housing that is walking distance to public transportation, within three-quarters of a mile.

The standard procedures for renting in Bennington -- a credit check, background check, proof of employment, prior landlord reference -- mean that new residents would not qualify for most apartment rentals, she said, but added that "these are young families, leaving skilled jobs and professional lives behind, who will add to our present and future workforce. They are, in fact, eager to work but first they need to learn English and a little about living in the U.S. They will not have references in the U.S. (other than our volunteers); there is no prior landlord reference; they've already completed a far more thorough security screening to get here than any Vermont background check; and they have funds for apartment rental until they are able to find jobs that pay enough for them to survive. They will be good tenants and neighbors."

The overall goal of the Multicultural Community Center, Huddleston has said, is to manage the community integration process for the families, helping them find housing, build support networks and find employment.

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


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