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Afghan refugees find housing, education and friendship on Brattleboro's SIT campus

A woman's hands hold a potato dumpling over a pan of eggs
Howard Weiss-Tisman
An Afghan woman dips a traditional potato dumpling in egg before frying in the kitchen at the School for International Training. Former SIT staff are volunteering to lead language classes and the campus has become a temporary home for about 90 refugees.

The Ethiopian Community Development Council, a national refugee resettlement group, announced last year that they would open an office in Brattleboro to bring Afghan refugees to southern Vermont.

The plan was to move people in slowly, but then the chaotic evacuation in Afghanistan happened when American troops pulled out, and more than 90 refugees arrived within a month.

"It's what I feel like this campus should be used for. And it feels to me, like it speaks to me about what this institution should be and should be doing in the world.” - Leslie Turpin, SIT

The refugees have been living, and learning, on the School for International Training campus in Windham County, where an English language class was underway recently.

“Okay. A-B-C-D. D. D. The letter is D. Sounds like duh. Duh,” said Jaime Durham, a former SIT faculty member who was leading the class. “What did you do in Afghanistan? What? Driver. Driver.”

About a dozen Afghan women are seated in a semi-circle, listening intently to the teacher, up on the second floor of the library on the SIT campus in Brattleboro.

SIT opened in 1964, as a college that focused on international education. It was one of the first training centers in the country for the Peace Corps.

More from VPR: School for International Training to eliminate Brattleboro program and cut staff

The full-time program in southern Vermont was shut down in 2018, though there’s still staff on campus that help run other schools that SIT has all over the world.

When word went out around Brattleboro that the large group of Afghan refugees needed a place to live, some folks thought the campus, with its rows of empty dorm rooms, would make a great landing point.

“I mean, it’s what I feel like this campus should be used for,” said Leslie Turpin, program chair of the SIT Teaching English as a Second Language masters program.

“And it feels to me, like, it speaks to me about what this institution should be, and should be doing in the world.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The School for International Training ended its full-time student program in Brattleboro in 2018. About 90 Afghan refugees have been living on campus since early January.

When Turpin heard that the Afghan refugees would be living on campus, she knew there would be a need to help them out with language lessons.

Turpin also knew there were a whole bunch of former SIT language professors living in the area, mostly retired, who’ve worked with refugees all over the world.

“The [memorandum of understanding] hadn’t been signed,” she said. “We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, where it was going to take place, but we knew we could teach, and we wanted to. So, we started working on developing a process.”

Turpin got together with a small group of former SIT professors and created a language and cultural orientation program for the Afghan women and men, which over the past few months has been run entirely by about 20 volunteers.

The group also help set up a program for the kids, who play in the back of the classroom while their mothers are learning. There are colorful paintings the kids made hanging on the walls, with Legos, crayons and toys strewn about the classroom.

The kids’ program is being run by former licensed teachers and childcare workers who are also volunteering.

But not every mother was able to leave Afghanistan with her children.

One mother in the classroom approached a reporter with a message for anyone who might be listening, and an interpreter came by to help.

“As we came here we left our children back in Afghanistan and they don’t have anything to eat these days,” she said. “And we are really worrying about them. And we would like to call and ask from the local people in Vermont to raise our voice and to talk with the officials to help us bring our kids here.”

“We are so lucky to have the chance to come here, but emotionally, it is not easy. We know that we are in a transition process. And all this emotional, all this feeling is…it needs time." - Afghan refugee

The Ethiopian Community Development Council, or ECDC, is one of nine organizations in the country that works with the State Department to resettle refugees.

What they’re doing in Brattleboro has never been tried in U.S. before, where resettlement efforts have centered around major cities, or towns much larger than Brattleboro.

ECDC co-sponsorship manager Thomas Huddleston said organizers are relying on a program in southern Vermont, where groups of seven to 10 sponsors connect with a family and support them as they settle into their new home.

“European countries have started this, and now finally the US is doing it,” he said. “And it could fundamentally change the way that we do refugee resettlement, so that it’s not just done by service providers and case workers. But that you get the whole community involved, not just to give donations, but to be there with people, accompanying them through the good and the bad, through the ups and downs.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Afghan men meet with local volunteers to discuss a volunteer buddy system that matches a refugee with someone with like interests from the community.

When the refugees first arrived, ECDC organized some groups to cook food for them, and the Vermonters did their best to make traditional Afghan meals.

But one of the women at SIT said that, while the refugees appreciated the efforts, the difficult experience of fleeing their country made them long for real Afghan food.

“When people in Afghanistan, when they are not happy, they are sad, they want to eat foods with a lot of pepper, and spicy foods with lots of oil,” she said. “And now, our people are not very happy here, because they left all their things, and respectable things in Afghanistan, is that right? And they are not very happy, they are sad, and here they want to eat some spicy foods.”

After hearing that the donated food was falling a little short, the resettlement group met with SIT staff, and learned that there was a kitchen on campus that wasn’t being used.

For the past month, a few Afghan women have been using the college kitchen to cook traditional food for the folks who have been living on campus.

On a recent evening they were making kuku, a kind potato dumpling filled with chicken and vegetables. After stuffing the filling into the potato dough, and patting them into tight patties, one of the women coated each with egg before sliding it into hot oil.

Sponsors float in and out of the kitchen, dropping off or picking up food, while Afghan refugees work on finding jobs and apartments.

"We just brought our bodies. All of our mind, I mean, all of our feelings, all of our, I mean, everything is back there."
- anonymous Afghan refugee at SIT

Men walk around outside smoking cigarettes, while the kids roam freely, hugging the sponsors they recognize. While the kitchen crew finishes frying up the kuku a crowd begins to gather in the dining room for dinner.

One man sits down with a cup of hot tea and opens his cell phone, pulling up a video of the ancient Buddha sculptures in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan that were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. He shakes his head and sighs.

He proudly shows photos from a museum in Kabul, and talks about how much of his country’s historical treasures have been looted and destroyed after years of war. Then he displays photos of some of his family members, who are still in Afghanistan.

Another refugee sits downs and is eager to talk about his past few months, and his hopes for the future.

“I mean, we just brought our bodies. All of our mind, I mean, all of our feelings, all of our, I mean, everything is back there,” he said. “And we are, every single day, we are worrying about the safety of our family, our parents, and the safety of our neighborhoods.”

He says he had a good job in Afghanistan, two cars, a good apartment., and that he did not want to leave. But when the Taliban took over in his country, he had to go.

“Yesterday, I had the chance to enroll my kids in a school here, and I was, I start crying, because I could see, I mean, I became so emotional,” he says.

“And I cried, because I could see that my kids has the chance to study in a school. But other kids in Afghanistan, unfortunately, they don’t have the chance. They even don’t have anything to eat. And they have a harsh winter. They have, they have, I mean, a very, what I can see from here, they have a very, very dark future, unfortunately.”

He says he left Afghanistan without knowing where he and his family would end up, and he is very unsure about what lies ahead. But he says he feels safe, and protected, and for now, he thinks he has made the right move.

“We are so lucky to have the chance to come here, but emotionally, it is not easy,” he says. “We know that we are in a transition process. And all this emotional, all this feeling is, it needs time. We have to build our whole life here. It is going to be our country. It is going to be our new life. We are trying our best to cope with the situation, and we are delightful with the support that we are receiving from the local communities, from our response group, from the resettlement agencies, from the United States government. We are thankful for them. But, I mean, the whole Afghans that were evacuated, we are all in a, in a sort of transferring process. It needs time to heal. It wouldn’t happen within one night. We need time. We need education. We need to learn the language. We need to deal with the local people. And we need more supports like this one. And we wish that all this support, all this process, will go smoothly.”

About 90 refugees are settling around southern Vermont, and in the coming weeks, they will be moving off the SIT campus as they find housing.

The language classes will be offered remotely while the group settles into their new homes.

Officials involved with the project say there probably won’t be another large group coming. But ECDC is working to bring those who are still trapped in Afghanistan over to reunite with their families.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public's reporter for Southern Vermont & the Connecticut River Valley. He worked at the Brattleboro Reformer for 11 years, reporting on most towns in the region and specializing on statewide issues including education, agriculture, energy and mental health. Howard received a BA in Journalism from University of Massachusetts. He filed his first story with Vermont Public in September 2015.
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