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Refugees and resettlement organizations in Vermont ask for housing help

detail of Afghan interviewee sewing
credit: Courtesy Eduardo Melendez
Vermont resettlement agencies project more than 550 refugees could be placed in Vermont this year.

Vermont refugee resettlement agencies project more than 550 refugees could be placed in Vermont this year. But agency staff say they might have to lower their projections due to a lack of affordable housing.

Vermont Edition discussed the situation with leaders from the two federally contracted resettlement agencies in Vermont: Mark Clark, the program manager with the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), which works in the Brattleboro and Bennington areas, and Amila Merdzanovic, the Vermont director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), which works in Chittenden and Rutland counties. Tim Rivera, the senior advisor for World Learning, the parent company of the School for International Training (SIT), also joined the conversation.

Afghan refugee Abdul Rizwanzai also shared his perspective on the housing shortage with Vermont Edition. He works for the Ethiopian Community Development Council, ECDC, as an employment navigator. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Abdul Rizwanzai: I left Afghanistan in November 2021. And then I went to Qatar, and I was there for five or six months, and then I departed Qatar to come to the United States and then I came to Vermont. So, while I was in Qatar, I was told that you must go to Vermont. At that time, the state of Vermont was a new name for me. Like I was hearing Vermont for the first time. ... Since May of 2022 I have been living here in Brattleboro, Vermont. I think this is a good place for me to live here. So, I received all the support from ECDC from the local community, and from the people in from the state. So now I can do my things myself. I'm self-sufficient, and I'm independent. And I know about the system. I'm learning about the culture and about all these things.

Mikaela Lefrak: And are you in your own housing now? Where are you living?

Abdul Rizwanzai: Yes, I live in my own apartment. So, when I came here, I moved into my apartment after two weeks of staying at SIT. After two weeks of staying at SIT, the housing navigator of ECDC helped me to find an apartment for me in the downtown. So that time the state was paying for the rent, and the state paid almost for four months, then they started paying for the refugees. The apartment I was living in was too expensive for me because I was downtown. So, then I applied for another apartment. After four months, I moved into a new apartment which I found for myself. So, when I came here to Brattleboro at the beginning, it was a little bit easier to find an apartment. But now we are receiving a bigger and bigger number of refugees. It's become a challenge to find an apartment easily or as soon as possible.

Mikaela Lefrak: Now, you work with ECDC as an employment navigator, but I'm sure you also are there for these conversations as other refugees talk about struggling to find housing, what have you heard?

Abdul Rizwanzai: It’s true. Like a shortage of housing is not only a statewide issue is a nationwide issue. So, the shortage of housing is everywhere. So, of the refugees coming here, most of them now have their own apartments, in their own houses. ECDC is supporting them in finding reasonable and affordable apartments in the houses. So, some of the refugees we did receive recently have been living at SIT. And of course, we are hearing from them like they are looking for their own apartments in the houses. But unfortunately, we are facing a shortage of apartments and houses.

Mikaela Lefrak: And is there a particular type of housing that is more difficult to find? Maybe either for individuals or for families, larger families?

Abdul Rizwanzai: Yes, larger families have more problems finding apartments or houses. Some of the families here have six or seven people so it's hard to find an apartment for them that seven people can live in. So that is a type of problem that we face with a big family is usually having more problems finding a suitable apartment or house.

Mikaela Lefrak: Were you accompanied by anybody from your family when you came to the United States, or Vermont? Or is your family still back in Afghanistan?

Abdul Rizwanzai: My family is still back in Afghanistan. So, I come here as an individual.

Mikaela Lefrak: What are your conversations like with your family? I can imagine they're so happy that you're safe, but it must be incredibly difficult to be so far away.

Abdul Rizwanzai: it is incredibly difficult to be far away from your family. It's been almost two years, but we are in touch via WhatsApp calls. Not all the time, but like once or twice a month. So, I'm just talking to them and we listen to each other we talk about the problems they have there, how I can support them, and ask about my condition. Here we are in a skateboard their condition. So, we exchange words in we are in contact through cones in through WhatsApp application.

Mikaela Lefrak: Do you feel like you can provide support to them?

Abdul Rizwanzai: I think, yes. So financially, like I work here. And sometimes I had to send some money back home because I had to support them while I was working in Afghanistan. So, I was the person who was supporting his family financially. So, when I came here, I had to provide support, again, to my family, and I think I can't do it from here.

Mikaela Lefrak: That must be a lot of responsibility to have on your shoulders. And now you're also helping others who are arriving here as well. Abdul, I'm curious what your advice is for other refugees, perhaps refugees from Afghanistan, who are new to Vermont and look to you as somebody who has much more experience than they do having been here a few years now.

Abdul Rizwanzai: Yes, so working with them is comfortable for both, me and for them. We understand each other's language. We can provide our support, and some of them have language barriers and limitations. So, when they are talking to us in and we're passing on their message to ECDC, it’s easier for them to understand Vermont, the community, and ECDC. So, I am helping them as an employee for ECDC but also working with them after hours.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.