By Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
Joe Wiah grew up in the African republic of Liberia, fled its civil war at age 21 and has gone on to help the Ethiopian Community Development Council resettle refugees from Afghanistan.
That’s why Wiah is now an award-winning Vermonter.
The 49-year-old director of the ECDC’s branch office in Brattleboro — the hub support organization for refugees coming to Bennington and Windham counties — is the 2022 Con Hogan Award winner for creative, entrepreneurial community leadership.
“I feel incredibly grateful for all those who over the years have helped me to be where I am,” Wiah said.
The $15,000 prize is named for the Vermont public policy maker who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations before his death in 2018. It recognizes people who are following in Hogan’s footsteps by working collaboratively on shared goals.
“The award committee was impressed by Joe Wiah’s story, an amazing journey of persistence through setbacks and taking risks in pursuit of a vision,” committee chair Scott Johnson said. “He saw the brutality that war inflicted on child combatants and vowed to dedicate his life to creating peace and helping refugees.”
Wiah, born in 1973, had to flee Liberia’s civil war for Africa’s Ivory Coast in 1994. Traveling the continent for almost a decade before returning home in 2002, he considered joining the priesthood before choosing to work on Catholic Charities programs that led to the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers.
Coming to America 10 years ago, Wiah earned a master of arts in intercultural service, leadership and management at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Brattleboro. There, he also traveled as a research fellow for the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
Since graduating, Wiah has worked for Pathways Vermont, aiding people who are homeless, struggling with mental health issues or returning to communities after prison. He also served as a case manager for Southeastern Vermont Community Action, helping with housing, fuel and food.
Wiah moved on from each of those direct-service jobs in search of one in management, not realizing he’d value the experience upon joining ECDC a year ago. As director of its Brattleboro Multicultural Community Center, he works with public and private institutions to assist refugees with employment, housing, education, health care and integration into southern Vermont.
The resettlement agency, funded by the U.S. State Department, has welcomed about 125 Afghan refugees to Bennington and Windham counties this year and plans to host another 150 in 2023.
“My experience, not only as a refugee but also as someone who has implemented programs, prepared me for this job,” Wiah said.
“There’s no way I would have done it alone without the incredible sacrifices of the team here and the community as a whole,” Wiah said. “Those are the real winners of this award. I’m just the face of it.”