By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org
RUTLAND — The head of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program said refugees, including some from Syria, could start arriving in Rutland soon after Christmas.
Executive Director Amila Merdzanovic told service providers that the program expects to get confirmation of the first cases any day now.
Rutland is set to take in about 100 Syrian or Iraqi men, women and children — about 25 families — in the coming year, primarily from refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.
“It’s a very busy, exciting time,” Merdzanovic told the providers at a recent gathering. “I look forward to working with you for many years to come.”
Merdzanovic and the rest of the VRRP leadership team met with a broad cross section of regional service providers who will be working directly with refugees. Among them were health care providers, social workers, representatives of the city’s public school system, and elected officials.
State Refugee Coordinator Denise Lamoureux said the bimonthly forum is a way to stay connected and for providers and others to voice concerns or questions. More than 60 people attended the meeting. Chittenden County has had its own service provider network for about 15 years, and Rutland’s is based on a similar model.
VRRP officials presented an overview of the services it provides, including translation and interpretation, English language instruction, employment outreach and case management. Merdzanovic said officials have secured office space in the Howe Center in downtown Rutland and are interviewing candidates to fill three full-time positions: a case manager, an employment counselor and a Reach Up case manager. Most of the funding for staff at the Rutland office comes through a three-year $450,000 grant with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In addition to the three full-time positions VRRP will have an on-call medical case manager and two part-time providers for people learning English.
Caprice Hover, executive director of the Rutland County Parent-Child Center, asked about the resources available for providers of early childhood education. She said early education programs are already underfunded and that budgets for fiscal year 2017 were established before the refugee resettlement had been approved.
“Because of the timing we couldn’t budget for (English language learners),” she said. “Even if we ask for funding we don’t always get it.”
According to Rob Bliss, assistant superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools, there are four qualified pre-kindergarten providers in the city with seven locations. However, parents are free to access qualified providers in surrounding towns, and the city has partnerships in Proctor, Killington and Pittsford. The school district has its own ELL program, and Bliss said refugee families would likely work at first with VRRP and the volunteer community to assess the needs of their children.
He said development in the child’s native tongue is just as critical as learning English.
Ashraf Alamatouri, English language learning coordinator at VRRP, said the challenge tends to be that young children do not learn their native language rather than difficulty absorbing English.
“At that age they’re like sponges and can easily develop a second language,” Bliss said. However, Bliss acknowledged it would take time to figure out what works best and said providers would look to models in Burlington and Winooski that have experience with refugee communities.
“How to best serve the youngest kids will become more and more clear,” he said.
According to Merdzanovic, of the roughly 12,000 Syrian refugees who came to the U.S. last year approximately 40 percent were children under the age of 14. Last year, 386 refugees were resettled in Vermont, the second highest in VRRP’s history.
Michelle Folger, Vermont Adult Learning’s Rutland County regional manager, said that although the organization won’t be offering early childhood education classes, it will provide language instruction to adults over the age of 16. “We don’t anticipate a big influx initially, but we have the capacity to take more,” Folger said. “We will be able to support them.”
Lamoureux said economic self-sufficiency was the core of the resettlement program and that refugees are authorized to work as soon as they arrive. VRRP helps match refugees with suitable employment based on level of education, background, and professional experience. However, she said new arrivals are required to accept their first job offer. “The goal is to get people to work as soon as possible,” she said.
After eight months, when transitional cash assistance for refugees ends, 88 percent of employable adults have found work, Merdzanovic said.
Even if the focus is on work, volunteers play an important role in the resettlement process. Lori Stavrand, volunteer coordinator for VRRP, said the program depends on support from the community. She also pointed out that the volunteer arm of the program receives no federal funding, which means it has to be especially resourceful.
Stavrand said VRRP has already been contacted by a retired lawyer in Rutland who has offered to provide pro bono legal help.
Refugees, she said, arrive with very little and often have left everything behind, including their network of family and friends. “The resettlement program is helped so much by volunteers being engaged on a personal level,” Stavrand said. “The main focus is to welcome these people.”