BRATTLEBORO – When the Afghans who fled their country amid the chaotic US withdrawal arrive in Southeast Vermont to resettle here, they will need housing, language support and other services . Joe Wiah is the man who coordinates it all.
Wiah, 48, of Brattleboro, is intimately familiar with the area’s network of social service providers, having worked in this field locally for nearly a decade.
But he also understands the other side of the experience, he said. An immigrant himself, he came to Vermont in 2012 as a student and decided to stay there.
“I went through the integration process, even though I didn’t come as a refugee, I came as a student,” he said. “But it’s the same process of integration.
Tens of thousands of Afghans were evacuated amid the humanitarian crisis that accompanied the military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and brought to the United States. According to a press release from the Department of Homeland Security on November 17, more than 25,000 people have been resettled in communities across the country, while 45,000 others have remained temporarily housed in military bases, awaiting their final destination. .
In September, Governor Phil Scott announced that the State Department had authorized the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit resettlement agency, to welcome up to 100 Afghans to Vermont.
Meanwhile, another resettlement agency, the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), gained approval to open a new field office in Brattleboro. The agency planned to apply to the State Department for permission to settle 25 more Afghans in the city, according to Scott’s announcement.
Wiah, from Liberia, heads the local ECDC office, a position he started on September 20.
The day before Thanksgiving, he sat in the agency’s new multicultural community center, a collection of offices around a spacious common area in a building off Putney Road.
“People ask: when will people be here? “,” Said Wiah. The great interest of locals who want to welcome newcomers to the city is understandable, he said. “But we ask for the patience of the community in this regard, because we want people to be successful. And for them to be successful, we must be prepared ourselves. Our office and the community must be ready.
Wiah said families and individuals have already been assigned to Brattleboro, but none have arrived yet. First, it organizes the office, hires staff, identifies service providers and lays the groundwork for the transition process to be as successful as possible.
“We have a tentative schedule, but that tends to change quickly,” he said.
Wiah grew up in Liberia, but left before he was 18 amid the country’s civil war. “I understand what it means to be a refugee,” he said.
He was in the process of becoming a Catholic priest. After high school, he went to Nigeria for his first year of seminary, then continued his studies in Tanzania for several years. He returned to Liberia, then studied philosophy at the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.
He ultimately decided not to be a priest, although he remains a committed Catholic.
“I love the church,” he says. “Most of my upbringing, my lifestyle has been with the Catholic Church.”
At the same time, he found some priesthood rules difficult.
“The vow of poverty was one of the challenges because even though I am not a rich person… it was very difficult to focus on helping your family because you are called to serve and serve everyone. “, did he declare. “But as you serve everyone, you see your family struggling. And it was a very difficult decision for me, balancing it with my own traditional beliefs that as you grow up, it is your responsibility to help your parents.
But he continued to serve the church and community in another capacity, becoming deputy director of a Catholic charity in Liberia, Don Bosco Homes. There, he said, he managed three different programs with a staff of about 75 people.
He sometimes traveled to the United States for his work. During a visit, he recalls, he gave a presentation to George Mason University in Virginia, which sent students to Liberia for internships. The theme was the reintegration of former child soldiers. One participant, a professor at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, suggested that Wiah consider SIT’s conflict management program.
Wiah came to Brattleboro in 2012 to pursue a Masters in Intercultural Service, Leadership and Management from SIT Graduate Institute – and “fell in love with Vermont,” he said. He decided to stay.
“It’s so unique in his ways,” he said. “It’s a calm state, very loving people, a welcoming community too.”
While not without challenges and difficult individuals, he said he found Brattleboro on the whole to be safe and encouraging – a good place to find his place as an immigrant and raise a family.
Wiah’s own children – Joe Jr., 16, and Kim, 12 – are trying to join him in the United States. “It’s so ironic,” he noted. “Someone said to me, ‘How is that possible? I run a program in Vermont integrating refugees, and my kids are stuck in the immigration process.
After graduating from SIT, Wiah completed a fellowship with the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a Virginia-based nonprofit, he said. Back in Vermont, he went to work for SIT as a Global Leadership Seminar Coordinator, working with students and bringing speakers to campus.
After that, he joined the Pathways Vermont social service agency, working with incarcerated people about to return to their community.
“My role, before their release, was to work with them and the communities to determine what type of housing was available for them,” he said.
He then joined social service provider Southeastern Vermont Community Action, working on housing and preventing people from falling into homelessness. This helped put him in touch not only with housing providers, but also with a range of other services in the area, he said. “SEVCA was one of the organizations that really opened my eyes to the different service providers in our region.
These experiences prepared him to lead ECDC’s efforts to resettle refugees in Brattleboro. What interested him about the job, he said, was the opportunity to use his knowledge both about the challenges immigrants may face and the local resources they can turn to – ” connecting newcomers to communities, as well as connecting communities to newcomers ”.
“Joe is an excellent person for this role as he is familiar with the Vermont social service system as well as the international circumstances and environments that create the need for refugee resettlement,” said Tsehaye Teferra, President of ECDC, in a statement. September press release. announcing Wiah’s appointment. “His personal compassion and commitment to helping those in need, combined with his budgeting, strategic planning and grant management skills… will ensure the success of our Brattleboro program. “
Wiah acknowledges that some newcomers will find some aspects of the move to Brattleboro difficult.
On the one hand, it’s a predominantly white state with relatively few immigrants, so they can feel socially isolated. There is also the New England weather. And for those natives of Kabul or other urban areas, the rural setting will be an adjustment.
And, wherever they settle, many may feel like they have to start from the bottom, no matter how accomplished at home.
“Sometimes as an immigrant you come with very high skills, but those skills are not recognized” because they are not learned in the United States, “Wiah said. “So employers don’t trust these skills from the start. “
It puts people in the position to start over, he said. “And it’s very frustrating for a newcomer, because you know you have the skills, you have the ability to do the job, but you don’t get recognized. You start from the beginning and you do jobs that you normally wouldn’t do if you were in your home country.
He himself experienced something similar. He came to the United States with professional experience as a nonprofit executive, but had to retrace his path.
“How many years did it take me?” Nine years to get here, ”he said. “I had to start all over again, before my skills were recognized, and this is a challenge that immigrants face. It requires “being smart and focused” as you progress towards your goal.
He also sees advantages in moving to Brattleboro. In big cities, there is a lot more competition among immigrants for jobs, he said. And the small town feel can be a godsend.
“It’s a starting point,” he says. “Because it’s a small community, so you know almost everyone and people are generally willing to help. At least you would know someone to talk to.
While there might not be a huge immigrant community in Brattleboro, he said, people can learn a lot living here by trying to start from scratch.
Additionally, Wiah said her own experience tells her it’s important to focus on building a new life here, rather than just trying to recreate a version of her home country.
“Once you make up your mind to live in the United States, culturally you have to make up your mind to live in the United States,” he said. “You can’t live both ways, two lifetimes, to say, ‘I live here and I live there.’ And you’d be frustrated, because you wouldn’t belong to any of those. You might not be from your home country, and if you don’t fit well in the United States, in the culture of the United States, you will be frustrated because you will not have your place here. .