With Patience and an Open Ear, Joe Wiah Leads Refugee Resettlement in Southern Vermont | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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With Patience and an Open Ear, Joe Wiah Leads Refugee Resettlement in Southern Vermont

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Published October 12, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Joe Wiah - DAVID SHAW
  • David Shaw
  • Joe Wiah

On a recent Saturday afternoon near Brattleboro, Joe Wiah went to a party. Among the guests were several Afghan families who moved to town in January as refugees. Wiah, 49, is the director of ECDC-VT, a branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, one of the refugee resettlement agencies working with the U.S. government to bring thousands of Afghans to safety following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. Wiah had met these families and others during their first weeks in Vermont, when they were exhausted, traumatized and anxious about their future in a state that most of them had never heard of.

Less than 10 months later, Wiah watched as a handful of kids at the party played and ran around.

"They were so open and speaking English so well after such a short period of time," he said. "It made me proud. Who knows what would have happened to these kids if they had stayed in Afghanistan?"

Today, more than 100 Afghans call Brattleboro home. Close to 25 others have settled in nearby Bennington County. The Vermont office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has been welcoming refugees to the Burlington area for more than 40 years, but when Wiah was hired by ECDC in September 2021, the southern part of the state was new territory for refugee resettlement.

Wiah jumped into discussions with dozens of community leaders and government officials, built volunteer networks, and developed partnerships with local business owners to help refugees secure housing, jobs and medical care.

According to Will Belongia, executive director of the Vermont Community Loan Fund, Wiah "led our state's response to the world's call" to support evacuated Afghans. Belongia made that declaration at a September 28 ceremony where he presented Wiah with the Vermont Community Foundation's annual Con Hogan Award, which celebrates leaders who "envision a better Vermont and seize the responsibility to make that vision real."

Wiah said he is glad to see ECDC's efforts receive recognition, but he brushed the grand appellations aside. He is the kind of leader who introduces his colleagues before saying anything about vision or a better Vermont.

Recently, Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) visited the ECDC's Multicultural Community Center, which serves as a gathering place for refugees in Brattleboro, and asked how the legislature could help in its upcoming session. Wiah had a list of points to talk about: housing, job retention, education. But first, he looked around the room.

"This is Jill Williams, our center manager," he said, introducing some of the ECDC staff. "This is Sohaila; she does community engagement. Eduardo is our community engagement and communications manager; Ursula coordinated our summer programs; Noori is our finance assistant; and Abdul is our new employment specialist."

Three of the six employees Wiah introduced were Afghans who had come to Brattleboro as refugees just months earlier.

"I've tried to build a team that is multicultural," Wiah said later. "When this Afghan program started, we knew there would be some very skilled, educated people coming in who could help us understand how to work with our new residents and strengthen our programs."

Besides necessities, such as signing up families for food stamps and rental assistance and making sure there was furniture in their apartments, those programs have included English classes, sewing workshops, field trips, job-coaching sessions, driving lessons, Quran lessons, videos on how to take the bus and mail a letter, and an upcoming exhibit and celebration at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Tracy Dolan, director of Vermont's State Refugee Office, called Wiah's work in the past year "a really heavy lift." She noted that Brattleboro community leaders had already been laying the groundwork for refugee resettlement, but Wiah was tasked with opening up a new office, building staff at a time when it was hard to hire people and then actually welcoming refugees.

"Normally, refugee resettlement is spread out throughout the year, but the Afghans came very quickly and in concentrated numbers," Dolan said. Wiah "stayed calm in the face of a lot of chaos, and that's a really great quality to have," she continued. "And because he has been through this himself, he knows what it means to come into the country and have to acclimate and adjust to a whole new world."

Wiah grew up in Liberia, in the small coastal city of Harper. When civil war broke out in the late 1980s, his family, like many others, escaped to a small village in the region. After a few years, the war appeared to subside, and Wiah's mother gave him a choice: go to school or become a farmer like his peers in the village.

"She had never gone to school, but she understood the value of education," Wiah said.

At 15, he left his family to attend a Catholic high school back in Harper. But soon the war escalated again.

"We would look out the window in class and see fighter-bombers flying over the city on their way to bomb the port," Wiah said. Eventually, the school shut down, and Wiah fled to the Ivory Coast on his own. "I knew nobody," he said. "I had to navigate the system like everyone else."

Perhaps that's what helps make Wiah "a deep and sensitive listener," which is how Williams, manager of ECDC's Multicultural Community Center, characterizes him. Williams was an ECDC volunteer when dozens of refugees started arriving in Brattleboro in January and were temporarily housed on the unoccupied School for International Training campus. "There was nobody who was overlooked by Joe, whether they were a toddler or an elder," Williams recalled.

Joe Wiah - DAVID SHAW
  • David Shaw
  • Joe Wiah

After high school, Wiah took vows to become a priest; he studied at seminaries in Nigeria and Tanzania and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya. When he returned to Liberia, he decided not to pursue the priesthood but remained dedicated to his faith.

He worked for Catholic Charities in the capital city of Monrovia, managing programs that disarmed child soldiers and helped them reintegrate into their communities. And he worked for Don Bosco Children's Homes, a Catholic organization that provides educational and training programs to children and teens.

In 2012, Wiah, by then a father of two, enrolled at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, where he earned a master's degree in intercultural service, leadership and management.

"Vermont was a good fit for me," he said. "I wanted to challenge myself, learn how Americans live, understand American culture. And even though Vermont is a predominantly white state, it is a liberal state where no one questions you easily about the color of your skin or the way you speak."

Wiah also thought the "quiet living environment" he found in Brattleboro would be good for his children, and he began the process of trying to bring them to Vermont from Liberia — a process that is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, he found work at Pathways Vermont, an organization that advocates for people who are homeless, dealing with mental health issues or returning to community life after serving time in prison. He was also a case manager at Southeastern Vermont Community Action, where he helped individuals and families across 15 Vermont towns access housing and food resources.

Now, at ECDC, Wiah ties all those threads together. He and his current staff of 14 navigate a state social-service system that is stretched thin, a housing market that is historically tight, and community partners who are energized and want the best for their new neighbors.

In Vermont, ECDC is piloting what it calls a "cosponsorship" model of refugee resettlement, in which local volunteers shoulder many of the logistical responsibilities for helping families integrate. That approach is needed in part because "southern Vermont is a region that has not resettled refugees for a long time, and we don't have the institutional capacity to deal with all the complexities quickly," Wiah said.

The collaboration is crucial — but can also get messy and frustrating. It's a challenge, Wiah admits, but one that, overall, demonstrates the high level of commitment among ECDC's volunteers. "The welcoming," he emphasized, "has been huge."

"Joe is a patient man — he doesn't panic," said Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, president and CEO of ECDC, which he founded nearly 40 years ago. "In this line of work, you have to be very, very patient, because things are never going to be the way you planned them."

Teferra was happily surprised by the amount of community support for refugee resettlement in southern Vermont, even before he hired Wiah. The criticism today comes mainly from those who question the wisdom of bringing in refugees when the state is immersed in a housing shortage.

"'Let's take care of our own,'" Wiah has heard people say. He understands the concern but noted, "We don't ask the same question when someone drives their car across the border into Vermont.

"People move to Vermont because Vermont is a nice place," he continued. "But in those situations, we don't know who is coming. And those people are competing for the same resources, too."

Refugees, Wiah asserted, are the people who will help the Vermont economy survive.

"It's a win-win situation," he said. "People flee war and persecution, and we create a space for them to be here with us, building a community. But look at our state: Young people are leaving; we're struggling with our workforce.

"The best thing is to have refugees who can integrate into our communities," he maintained. "If we welcome refugees as we are doing now, we are not only helping other people, we are also helping our own environment, our own communities, our own government. The benefit is not only for refugees, but for ourselves."

Disclosure: Jennifer Sutton currently volunteers with several Afghan families resettled by ECDC-VT.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Warm Welcome"