Valley News – Refugees from Afghanistan are building a new life in southeast Vermont

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BENNINGTON — In a two-story house a few blocks from downtown Bennington, Mary Jan spends several hours a week shaping brightly colored yarn into winter scarves or bath mitts. Her hand knitted designs are sold in a few county stores.

Two days a week, she also works at a local food manufacturer, helping to make packaged snacks.

Mary Jan, 35, is still getting used to earning an income. Until August 2021, when her family fled Afghanistan, she was a homemaker and mother of three children. Now her part-time jobs fill up some of her free time, but more importantly, they supplement her husband’s salary as the family builds a new life in America.

“It’s really good that I can make some money out of it,” Mary Jan said of her knitting, speaking in Dari through an interpreter. “Because the United States is very expensive, a person cannot afford what a family needs.”

Her husband Mohammed, 45, is employed as a carpenter by an independent contractor in the county. He previously served as a security officer at the US Embassy in Kabul for almost a decade.

The family decided to leave their homeland, fearing for their safety as the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital in August last year. Because of his ties to the United States, Mohammed feared the Taliban would throw him in jail.

The couple and their 13-year-old son are among at least 76,000 Afghans who have been evacuated to the United States since the US military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021.

“I was happy to be able to get my family out of there,” Mohammed told Dari. He asked VTDigger not to release full family names to protect the safety of relatives who are still in Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Afghans now constitute one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The vast majority of Afghan refugees – 2.2 million – live in Pakistan and Iran.

UNHCR noted that some of the Afghans who moved served as translators or interpreters during the US mission in Afghanistan. Due to their employment in the US government, many have faced serious security threats.

About 260 Afghan adults and children have been resettled in Vermont. They include eight families from Bennington County, according to the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a federally contracted resettlement agency that placed Afghan refugees in Windham and Bennington counties.

Crucial community support

Mohammed’s family adjusts to local life with the help of volunteers – locals who help Afghans with tasks such as finding accommodation, finding jobs, learning to drive, taking appointment with the doctor and learn English.

Most volunteers here come through Bennington County Open Arms, a volunteer organization four residents started last year to support international arrivals to the county.

The resettlement agency has so far placed 28 adults and children in the county, in towns including Bennington and Manchester, said Bennington County Open Arms manager Anandaroopa, who goes by one name. The organization has 35 core volunteers and is always looking for more.

One morning this summer, Mary Jan joined a handful of fellow Afghans attending twice-weekly English classes at a church in Bennington. Classes are co-hosted by Bennington County Open Arms and The Tutorial Center. The organizations hire professional teachers for the classes and also hire volunteer tutors.

That day, as usual, the teachers grouped the students according to their level of English. One class dissected the elements of a complex sentence on a blackboard while, in another room, Mary Jan wrote and recited the English alphabet.

She and Mohammed had said their lack of English was a major obstacle to their adaptation to the United States. Their teenage son, Shahed, on the other hand, is learning the language quickly. He goes to local college and has attended two soccer camps this summer.

Mohammed, like other Afghans who cannot take English classes because of work, takes private lessons with volunteer “chat buddies”.

“There’s a chance for people to make a difference,” said Tracey Hitchen Boyd, a volunteer who lives in Cambridge, New York, about half an hour from Bennington.

Since February, she has helped several Afghan families in various roles: as a conversation partner, driving them to appointments, obtaining official documents such as social security numbers.

Leslie Kielson is a Sunderland resident who often helps Afghans find work. She sees her volunteer work as a way to reward their work alongside Americans in Afghanistan.

“These are people who in many circumstances have risked their lives for this country,” she said, “and they have just been uprooted.”

Local business owner Kielson said she sees Afghans as “incredibly motivated to work” because most of them also have to regularly send money to relatives back home. She said they are “extremely grateful” for the way they were received in Vermont.

Carve out new lives

Abbas Ali, 46, moved to Bennington in the summer of 2021 after living in Albany, New York for a few months.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees brought him to the United States from Indonesia, where he had been stranded since 2013 after fleeing Afghanistan. Originally from Pakistan, he traveled to Kabul in 2011 after a suicide car bomber destroyed his residential area. He had hoped that Afghanistan would have better prospects because of the American presence there.

A homecoming artist, Ali now works as a sales manager at a convenience store in Bennington. He lives with two colleagues in a caravan in town and dreams of soon finding his own home, which would also serve as an art studio.

One morning before going to work, he laid out three unfinished paintings, which he described as created in both the style of watercolor and miniature art. He said they will be part of an exhibition to raise money for refugees in Indonesia – once he finishes finishing the pieces.

“I was in the middle of the third, then I had to come here and start working,” said Ali, who is fluent in English. “I haven’t found the time.”

Bennington County Open Arms helps her find a new home. As for the other Afghan arrivals, the organization will also help him to stock up on furniture and other household items.

Ali is currently focused on making a good living, so he can bring his wife and two teenage children to the United States. They still live in Pakistan and he hasn’t seen them for 10 years.

He said his children, now 16 and 13, needed to be pressured into talking to him on the phone. His relationship with his wife has also become increasingly strained due to the passage of time and their distance.

“I’m desperate to see my family,” he said. “The only thing I can do is work very hard, very hard to at least show the government, the state that… I can sponsor my family.”

Mohammed and Mary Jan face similar stressors.

The couple is struggling to bring their other two children, who were abandoned in Afghanistan, to the United States. As the family traveled to Kabul airport to catch a flight to the United States last year, the two boys were separated from their parents amid the crush of people trying to flee. They were able to return safely to relatives.

Mary Jan talks about having “an empty space” in her heart as she waits to be reunited with her children.

Mohammed said he enjoyed the greatest freedoms of living in America, but he often found his thoughts wandering to his two sons who are an ocean away.

“Even when I’m working, my mind is always at home,” he said. “Once they come here, we will be more settled and happier.”

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