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Refugee resettlement director honored for community contributions

An illustration shows people walking.
Ksenia Zvezdina
Joe Wiah started his job with the Ethiopian Community Development Council in September 2021.

Joe Wiah has been named winner of the 2022 Con Hogan Award for leadership by the Vermont Community Foundation.

Named for the late longtime Vermont public policy maker, the award recognizes a community leader who has great ideas that produce measurable impact.

Wiah directs the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s Multicultural Community Center in Brattleboro. His work involves helping refugees settle in their new Vermont communities and connect with resources tied to employment, housing, education, and medical care.

Vermont Public's Mary Engisch caught up with Wiah ahead of the award ceremony. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Over the years, your career in Vermont has included several service roles. Some involving outreach to folks experiencing homelessness or with mental health issues. Providing access to services like housing and fuel in several Windham County towns. I'm curious, what brings you to these roles and public service?

A man is pictured.
Joe Wiah

Joe Wiah: First of all, I was growing up a beneficiary of public service, meaning people helped me out to be where I am. And after that, when I joined the Catholic church, I wanted to be a priest. So since then, I have been in public service. And it's hard to tell what really brought me in, but I enjoy what I do.

You grew up amidst a civil war in Liberia, in West Africa. And I understand you yourself were a refugee for a time. Now you work with refugees. Can I ask you about that, and how that informs your work?

My country, Liberia, when I was growing up, plunged into a civil war — 14 years of civil conflict. And as a young man, I had to leave my home country to go to a country that I knew nothing about as a refugee. And the Ivory Coast speaks French, not English. So the whole new language, going to another country, knowing no one, going through the U.N. process, finding that new life in a new country. That experience as a refugee in Africa positioned me to understand where refugees are coming from and some of the challenges they face, because I've faced them before. And been a position to lead a process that will help people transition for refugee status to a more permanent community member.

Knowing your own background and lived experience, is there something that you say or acknowledge when someone arrives in Vermont as a refugee? Something that lets them know that you may understand better what they're going through.

Because I went through it, sometimes it comes with a plan and an expectation that things are going to look like this — things are going to work for me this way. But the reality is different. It's that series of processes, steps you have to you have to take to get where you want to go.

So my first advice I always give to anyone who comes in trying to settle into the United States, whether a refugee or immigrant, is take your time, have a plan. And you will get to where you want to get. But you have to give yourself time.

Several hundred Afghan refugees have settled in Vermont over the last year or so. Can you talk about that resettlement effort and describe how things are going now?

I started my job Sept. 20th last year. And then we had our first refugees arrive the 3rd of January, 15 refugees at a time that week. So the beginning was very tough, knowing very well that we were receiving refugees in a place that had not been a refugee resettlement area before. So our infrastructure was not prepared to accommodate all of their arrivals. Because 15 to 16 people were coming per week between January to April.

But I must say the community here stepped up, everyone in southern Vermont stepped up. And without incredible volunteers, the high school, the town itself, you know, the hospital, and that collective effort — that has made it possible for our refugees to integrate. And it's going well compared to other places that we hear about. Of the refugees that came, we have about 127 right now, as people are still coming through.

But to your question how things are now, things are settling down. Our refugees are happy. We have a very small number of people that have left. But we have more people who came to southern Vermonts and said to their families, "Look, come to Vermont. It's much better here."

State officials say that Vermont can welcome up to 500 more refugees in the next fiscal year. What challenges does that pose for your organization, in terms of getting more people settled and helping them find resources in the community?

We have a projection right now of 150 people for our region for fiscal year 22-23 and projection for Brattleboro of 100 and a projection for Bennington at 50.

If we get approved by the State Department, the challenge is housing. As everyone know, employers here are very, very open to opening their doors to receive refugees. Everyone is working hard. But our challenge is now affordable housing. The scarce resource of housing is so incredibly delicate for new arrivals because they do not have credit history. When they come, it takes time for them to start working before they can pay for housing.

Well Joe, going back to the Con Hogan award, it comes with a cash prize of $15,000. Do you have plans for what you might spend it on?

The first thing right now is to take a vacation. After the last nine months, I have to take a vacation first, rest for two weeks and then decide what's next.

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