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

Bennington – In a bungalow several blocks from downtown Bennington, Mary Jane spends several hours a week crafting brightly colored yarn into her winter scarves or shower gloves. Her handwoven creations are sold in a number of stores in the county.

She also works two days a week at a local food factory, helping to make packaged snacks.

Mary Jean, 35, is still getting used to earning income. Until August 2021, when her family fled Afghanistan, she was the wife of a housewife and mother of three children. Now, her part-time jobs fill part of her spare time, but more importantly, she increases her husband’s salary while the family builds a new life in America.

“It’s really good to get some money out of this,” Mary Jean said of her knitting, speaking in Dari through an interpreter. “Because the United States is really expensive, not a single person can afford what a family needs.”

Her husband, Muhammad, 45, works as a carpenter for an independent contractor in the province. He previously worked as a security guard at the United States Embassy in Kabul for nearly a decade.

The family decided to leave their home country out of fear for their safety as the Taliban advanced to the Afghan capital in August last year. Because of his American ties, Muhammad feared that the Taliban would imprison him.

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 that I would be able to get my family out of there,” said Muhammad in al-Dari. VTDigger was asked not to reveal the full names of the family 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 concentrations in the world. The vast majority of Afghan refugees – 2.2 million – live in Pakistan and Iran.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that some of the relocated Afghans worked as translators or interpreters during the US mission in Afghanistan. Many of them faced serious threats to their safety because of their work for the US government.

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

Critical community support

Mohammed’s family adjusts to local life with the help of volunteers – local residents who help Afghans navigate tasks such as finding a home, getting a job, learning to drive, making doctor’s appointments and learning English.

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

Bennington County Administrator Anandaruba, Open Arms, who uses one name, said the resettlement agency has so far placed 28 adults and children in the county, in towns such as Bennington and Manchester. The organization has 35 core volunteers and is always looking for more.

One morning this summer, Mary Jean joined a handful of fellow Afghans participating in twice-weekly English lessons at a church facility in Bennington. Classes are jointly organized by Bennington County Open Arms and The Tutorial Center. The organizations hire professional teachers for the classes and also register volunteer teachers.

On that day, as is their routine, the teachers grouped the students according to their English level. One class dissected the elements of a complex sentence on the board while in another room Mary Jane wrote and recited the English alphabet.

She and Muhammed said their unfamiliarity with English was a major obstacle to adapting to the US, on the other hand, their teenage son, Shahid, is learning the language quickly. He went to the local middle school and attended two soccer camps this summer.

Muhammad, like other Afghans who cannot attend English classes because of work, gets one-to-one lessons from volunteer “conversational friends.”

“There is an opportunity for people to make a difference,” said Tracy Hitchen Boyd, a volunteer who lives in Cambridge, New York, about half an hour from Bennington.

Since February, she has helped many Afghan families in various roles: as a conversational buddy, pushing them to appointments, and obtaining official documents such as Social Security numbers.

Leslie Kelson is a native of Sunderland and often helps Afghans find jobs. She sees her volunteer activity as a way to reward them for working alongside the Americans in Afghanistan.

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

Kelson, a local business owner, said she sees Afghans as “an amazing incentive to work,” as most also need to regularly send money back to their relatives back home. She said they were “extremely grateful” for the ways she was welcomed into Vermont.

Acquisition of a new life

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

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees brought him to the United States from Indonesia, where he has been stranded since 2013 after fleeing Afghanistan. A Pakistani national, he went to Kabul in 2011 after a suicide car bomber destroyed his neighborhood. He hoped that Afghanistan would have better prospects because of the American presence there.

As an artist back home, Ali now works as a sales manager at a convenience store in Bennington. He lives with two mates in a trailer house in the city and dreams of finding his own place soon, which will double as his art studio.

One morning before heading to work, he painted three unfinished paintings, which he described as created in the style of watercolor art and miniatures. He said they will become part of an exhibition to raise funds for refugees in Indonesia – once he has moved on to complete the pieces.

“I was in the middle of three, and then I had to come here and start working,” said Ali, who speaks fluent English. “I didn’t find the time.”

Bennington County Open Arms helps him find a new home. As with other Afghan arrivals, the organization will also assist him in obtaining 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 US, still living in Pakistan, and he hasn’t seen them in 10 years.

He said his children, now aged 16 to 13, should be urged to speak to him on the phone. His relationship with his wife also became increasingly strained due to the passage of time and the distance between them.

“I am desperate to see my family,” he said. “The only thing I can do is work really hard, really hard to at least show the government, the country that… I can take care of my family.”

Mohammed and Mary Jean face the same pressure.

The couple are working to bring to the United States their two other children who were abandoned in Afghanistan. As the family made their way to Kabul airport for a US-bound flight last year, the two boys were separated from their parents amid a crush of people trying to escape. They were able to safely return to their relatives.

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

Muhammad said he has more freedoms to live in America, but he often finds his thoughts drifting away from his two sons, who are far from the ocean.

“Even when I work, my mind is still at home,” he said. “Once they come here, we will be much more stable and happier.”