BRATTLEBORO — The local campus for World Learning — parent organization of the pioneering 90-year-old School for International Training — will serve as a transition site for Afghan refugees arriving this winter in southern Vermont.
“This is one of those amazing moments when you have an alignment of a need, a group of willing individuals and an opportunity, a space and a set of values all coming together,” School for International Training President Sophia Howlett said in announcing the news.
The Ethiopian Community Development Council, a resettlement agency funded by the U.S. State Department, is working to relocate about 100 Afghan refugees to Brattleboro and surrounding towns in the next several weeks.
“Housing is a challenge,” Joe Wiah, the council’s branch office director, said of a shortage of affordable options in an area with one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state.
Enter World Learning, whose Brattleboro campus is busy during the spring and summer with student residencies, exchanges and events but quieter during the fall and winter when scholars are off participating in programs in some 50 countries.
“Refugee resettlement is in our DNA,” World Learning Vice President Joel Colony said of the organization that has worked with orphans in post-World War II Europe and refugees in camps in Africa and Asia.
The campus will offer not only its dorms for up to 90-day stays but also classes in cultural orientation and English and supportive services through its library and dining hall.
World Learning is the latest in a growing list of community partners the Ethiopian Community Development Council is tapping for help with housing, employment and education.
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, for example, plans to offer workforce support and training as part of its “Welcoming Communities” program seeking a younger, more diverse population.
“Vermont is certainly one of the most homogeneous states ethnically,” program manager Alexander Beck said. “When we look at what a strong and vibrant community looks like, we know that is an inclusive one.”
Covid-19 so far hasn’t challenged any of the partners, as refugees must be vaccinated and test negative for the virus upon arriving.
Offering employment also is proving easy, as a slew of local businesses are posting help wanted signs.
But securing housing has been harder because of an influx of newcomers who’ve purchased area property in the past two years as well as homeless people set to leave the state’s pandemic lodging program.
As a result, the council is looking to resettle some refugees in nearby Bellows Falls and Bennington and surrounding communities within a 100-mile radius.
“We know that many people are really eager to personally get to know these individuals,” council spokesperson Emily Gilkinson said. “These individuals have been through a huge, traumatic transition. We are putting an emphasis on protection, safety and giving them space to establish themselves. We do hope that, down the road, there will be opportunities for them to share their stories.”