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Bridging differences, Brattleboro welcomes refugees

red, green, white, and black flowers made of tissue paper
A community of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Brattleboro, Vermont knows what it is like to feel rejected. This growing L’Arche project has come together to turn rejection into welcome for refugees from Afghanistan.

Members of the burgeoning L’Arche community in Brattleboro, Vermont know something about feeling like an outsider, excluded because of differences.  

Experiencing exclusion of their own means it is with especially abundant joy this small cadre of intellectually and developmentally disabled people is among those who will greet new families arriving from Afghanistan as refugees in the coming months.  

“These individuals are experiencing a lot of change and are trying to orient into a new culture,” Brattleboro resident Teresa Savel said. “We are part of this expanding community. We’re all in it together.” 

Savel and other advocates for inclusion in Brattleboro are exploring beginning their own L’Arche community. Networking that lays the groundwork for L’Arche community life prompted Savel and others to respond to a call for support from a Vermont refugee resettlement organization.  

“We like to network,” Savel said. “One of the things that’s come up is we also want to have fun.” 

two people dance with one another with their arms in the airSo, the Brattleboro group set about connecting with another Brattleboro community group to collaborate, making paper flowers in the color of Afghanistan’s flag, and learning to sing and dance to a traditional welcome song.  

A party is in the works, Savel said, as another display of welcome and a means of introducing those with developmental differences to those from a country where disability is not usually embraced. 

“We’re saying there’s no difference here,” Savel said. “Let us come together in this mutual reality that we understand what it’s like not to feel accepted, to be estranged from our own communities.” 

Director of Community Support Andy Noethe said the Brattleboro group is in the beginning stages of becoming a L’Arche community but is modeling L’Arche welcome already.  

“For the emerging L’Arche group in Brattleboro to already be discovering ways to support and celebrate relationships across differences is exciting for the L’Arche movement and for the impact they can have in their local community.” 

Compassionate Brattleboro is one group helping to coordinate the welcome of refugees. The group’s Jim Levinson says there is a welcome event planned in which community member with and without disabilities will welcome Afghan refugees in song and dance. 

It struck us that what was missing was an opportunity to welcome these people and celebrate their culture,” Levinson said.  

“There’s a camaraderie and an understanding and a compassion that our friends with intellectual and developmental disabilities live with on a daily basis,” Savel said. “It can be very affirming for our neighbors that are just starting to land and get a breath of their new life.” 

Levinson agreed. 

“Given the experience of these refugees, what they’ve gone through, they’re just enormously appreciative of being taken in, taken care of, being accepted,” he said. “I think they can understand and celebrate that L’Arche accepts people of all kinds.” 

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