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BRATTLEBORO—Last week, a group of Afghan refugee women, accompanied by local artist and teacher Terry Sylvester, made signs reading “Welcome” in English as well as Dari and Pashto – the two official languages of the Afghanistan – and distributed them to downtown businesses.
“[Store owners] were very happy and they said ‘welcome’ to us,” said Fatima, who participated in the project. “They accepted our signs and put them in the windows, and they were very nice to us.”
Later that week, Fatima and three other women – Mitra, Marwa and Sohaila – joined Sylvester for an interview via Zoom. (For the safety of the women, their surnames are withheld.)
“We made 10 placards,” Fatima said. “We shared the panels with the stores [on upper Main Street]also [Brattleboro Food] Coop and the River Gallery school.
Another business was Scissor Masters at 51 Elliot St., where the men from one of the refugee families had their hair cut by the salon.
Sylvester said she and Lise Sparrow, who both belong to a circle of support for an Afghan family, came up with the idea for the panels.
“It was simple, really,” she said. Armed with poster boards, paint and markers, Vermonters and Afghans met in the dining hall of the information center at the SIT/World Learning campus.
This space serves as an informal meeting place on campus that has welcomed refugees and provides them with shelter while they adjust to their new surroundings.
Sylvester noted that Greg Lesch, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, was very supportive of the women’s initiative. The group would like to make more signs for businesses.
Downtown Brattleboro was “a very welcoming environment,” Mitra commented. “We are very much looking forward to making more signs.”
The women are all professionals. Sohaila is an English teacher; when she left Afghanistan, she was working with university students.
“I have a BA in English Literature from Samangan University,” she said. “I was working with university students in the management program. I was helping young men and women for democracy, with the National Endowment for Democracy.
Fatima is an investigative journalist.
“In Afghanistan, I worked in radio, and I had experience working for television, and the last one was for a website,” she explained.
The group of refugees, she said, “arrived on November 27 in Qatar, and we stayed in Qatar for 21 days, and [then] we arrived in New Jersey. On January 28, I came to Vermont.
She took advantage of the opportunities to learn more about the Brattleboro community. The refugees take English lessons three days a week and accompany volunteers to discover the city.
“We went to some stores, and at the [Harris Hill] ski jump, and we went to The cities,” she says.
She asked about a traineeship and Commons staff said she could start in early March.
“I was asked what my goal was and said I wanted to share the stories of Afghan refugees in Brattleboro. Excited [Holhut, news editor of The Commons] said to me, “You can start your journey.”
Two of the women have a background in art. Mitra, a management graduate, had a gallery where she taught art; it had 20 student members.
“I am one of the members of ArtLords, an organization working for artists – especially for murals,” she said.
Marwa is also an artist. She created thank you cards for every business owner who accepted a “Welcome” sign.
“I made these cards, and when the store owners accepted the signs, we gave them these cards as a thank you,” she said. “We all wrote our names on the other side of the card.”
Marwa, who specialized in murals in Afghanistan, is now a student at the River Gallery School.
“I’m hopeful for the future,” she said.