By Fred Thys/VTDigger and Polly Mikula
Up to 100 Afghan refugees could be coming to Vermont if the federal government signs off on a new request from the state and its nonprofit partner.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of State Friday, Aug. 27, to resettle the refugees in Vermont, according to Tracy Dolan, director of the State Refugee Office. “We’re excited,” Dolan said Wednesday, Sept. 1. “It will benefit Vermont to have our communities enriched.” At least 50,000 Afghans are expected to be admitted into the United States following the fall of Kabul as part of an “enduring commitment” to help people who aided the American war effort and others who are particularly vulnerable under Taliban rule, Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, said Friday, Sept. 3.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have already made it through security vetting and arrived in the U.S. to begin the process of resettlement. Exactly how many more will come and how long it will take remain open questions, Mayorkas said.
USCRI has assisted in the relocation of roughly 8,000 refugees to Vermont over the last 40 years. The refugees have come primarily from Bhutan, Bosnia, Burma, Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Vietnam.
The purpose of this relocation is to assist Afghans who helped U.S. military and government agencies, as well as Afghans who worked for U.S. news organizations.
Dolan said USCRI indicated in its request that if the resettlement begins with a few families, Chittenden County would be the logical destination given the number of social services available there. But he added that there is likely to be a need to resettle them in areas that have not until now hosted Afghan communities.
As for Rutland the issue of refugee resettlement be be on the city’s agenda next week with Mayor David Allaire promising an open discussion. Allaire said he’s already been in touch with USCRI Vermont Director Amila Merdzanovic and has asked her to come before the Board of Aldermen Tuesday to discuss the process. Resettlement decisions are made at the federal level. “I want this whole discussion to happen out in the open, transparent and have the whole community on board going forward,” Allaire told the Rutland Herald.
Allaire rose to power during an anti-refugee backlash against his predecessor, Christopher Louras, who worked with USCRI to get Rutland designated as a resettlement site for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
However, Allaire said that since announcing the possibility Thursday, Sept. 2, that the city might take on Afghan refugees, he’d gotten “mostly positive” feedback.
Merzanovic said, “We have received a tremendous number of inquiries from Vermonters around the state, so we are starting to connect with individuals, families and groups,” she said. “We are looking to put families with host families and then look for permanent housing. It is not going to be all over the state. It is going to be very organized. We are looking to work within community sponsorship groups.”
Merzanovic said the goal is to build a community.
“Try to put yourself in the shoes of a newcomer,” Merzanovic said. “We want to place families in close proximity, so there is a community.”
Merzanovic said her group already has about 100 people offering to host, provide transportation, teach English or other needs. “Vermont has a long history of welcoming refugees,” Merzanovic said. Merzanovic said her organization is being inundated with calls to offer help.
She encourages people to email offers of help to firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also encouraging people to donate money.
Access to transportation, housing and employment would be factors in deciding where to relocate refugees. Dolan, too, said many Vermonters have reached out to offer their homes, to mentor or support families and to provide jobs.
“I hope we are able to do this,” she said.
Gov. Phil Scott had previously asked the Biden administration to approve Vermont as a resettlement site, but the new proposal formalizes the request.
At a press conference last month, Scott said he had tried to convey to the administration that Vermont is “ready, willing and able” to host refugees from war-torn countries.”
Any Afghans resettled to Vermont would have completed security and medical screenings and been approved for residency and work in the United States, according to a joint press release issued Wednesday by USCRI and the state Agency of Human Services.
In emails, spokespeople for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said their bosses support the resettlement of the refugees.
“I am gratified that Vermont is volunteering to welcome and resettle one hundred Afghans who have fled their country in recent weeks,” Leahy said in a written statement, calling it a “moral obligation” to protect those who supported the U.S. government in recent decades.
“Vermont has a long history of warmly welcoming refugees who have become an integral part of communities across our state. They have made Vermont stronger,” Leahy said. “It is fitting that Vermont is stepping up yet again to offer safe haven to vulnerable Afghans in their hour of need.”