BRATTLEBORO — For more than 90 years, people from all over the world have come to Southern Vermont to live and learn, starting with the Experiment for International Living in 1932 and later known as the School for International Training.
In the early 1960s, alumnus Sargent Shriver asked the Experiment, then located on Black Mountain in Brattleboro, to train the first wave of volunteers for the nascent Peace Corps, a training program that evolved into the School for International Training and the SIT Study Abroad program, which enrolled at its height more than 2,000 people every year.
In 2008, World Learning, SIT’s parent organization, renamed the program in Brattleboro the SIT Graduate Institute, offering master’s degrees in eight areas of study, as well as certificate and professional development programs.
In 2018, World Learning announced it was scaling back its programs in Brattleboro, while offering the same courses at locations around the world. As a result, the housing accommodations on the campus sat unused for several years until the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021.
Now, in cooperation with the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a national refugee resettlement organization that opened the Multicultural Community Center in Brattleboro in October 2021, and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, the SIT campus has once again become home to people from around the world.
“The SIT campus is once again full, with nearly 80 people living here from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Kate Casa, senior communications manager for SIT.
Since January 2022, SIT has welcomed 227 refugees from conflict areas of the world into the three-month program, giving them a place to live and learn while they prepare for their new lives in their new country.
On Halloween, SIT organized a trunk-or-treat for the new arrivals, most of whom had never experienced a U.S. style Halloween.
“You have to welcome people,” said Alix Fedoruk, director of Carry Me Home, a volunteer organization that collects clothing for refugees and others in need. “It’s so hard to start your life over again. I want people to feel seen and safe.”
“It’s exciting to see a new group of people moving into the neighborhood from all over the world,” said Juliet Cuming of Dummerston.
Olivia McNeely, a case assistant with the ECDC, said she was proud to be able to help the new refugees.
“We always find news ways to introduce folks to stuff,” she said. “Last year, Riley [Mumpton] taught a fencing class.”
One refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had been on campus with his six family members for 12 days, said the event was a very nice welcome to the community.
“Very friendly,” he said. “Wonderful. Just a beautiful place to be.”
He and his family are settling in, and his 22-year-old son hopes to soon start classes in electrical engineering.
Scott Farm donated apples and doughnuts and Walker Farm donated pumpkins for the event.
Funding for the interim housing at SIT has run out but World Learning plans to continue the program, said Joel Colony, World Learning vice president for external engagement and advocacy.
“We anticipate receiving funding from the state that will cover the period to the end of February,” he said. “Until then, World Learning is covering the costs.”
Colony said he has had conversations with the Vermont State Refugee Coordinator and the Windham County delegation in the Statehouse to identify an interim source of funding and to determine how the World Learning can secure sustainable support for the program.”
“We are profoundly grateful to State Refugee Coordinator Tracy Dolan and the state of Vermont for their support from the outset of this effort,” said Colony.
About 90 percent of the refugees who come to Southern Vermont remain here, according to information provided by SIT, and 93 percent of all “job-seeking” refugees found jobs with more than 45 employers in Southern Vermont with an average wage of $18.27 per hour, totaling $3.3 million in taxable wages earned last year.
Reporter Bob Audette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.