COLCHESTER — In Chittenden County, a growing group of volunteers are stepping up to welcome asylum seekers into their communities.
The Chittenden Asylum Seekers Assistance Network (CASAN), which has recently been approved as a nonprofit, works alongside Vermont’s network of similar organizations to support incoming individuals and families.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), based in Colchester, was approved to welcome up to 100 Afghan refugees to Vermont. CASAN, subsequently, has been in touch with the organization, offering support in any way they can.
However, while there are systems and organizations like USCRI to assist refugees, asylum seekers often don’t receive such help.
Asylum seekers have no eligibility to rent housing, get a driver’s license, or apply for work. President of CASAN, Jan Steinbauer, says that, unlike refugees, asylum seekers have no official system to facilitate their entry into the state.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” said Steinbauer.
Members of CASAN shared how they worked to support asylum seekers these past months at their quarterly Zoom meeting Sept. 29. This summer, the organization was contacted about six different families in need of assistance.
The newest members supported by the network are a mother and her two young children. As explained at the meeting, asylum seekers are referred to with their initials rather than their names as a means to keep these families safe from the risks of reprisals.
For a year, this family was looking for housing, couch surfing, in the midst of a pandemic. CASAN got involved with this search for housing, and after months of work, the network found a place for the family.
Steinbauer explained that housing is a huge concern, as well as finding legal clinics to work pro-bono cases that would otherwise cost anywhere from $4,000 to $9,000 in legal fees.
The government’s asylum application is free, but it can take years to process.
“It’s a cruel system,” Steinbauer said, “It doesn’t make sense.”
CASAN offers financial support for rent, legal fees, internet usage, and day-to-day costs of living.
“We’re the small players trying to mop up the mess,” says Steinbauer, but the aid provided by this network goes beyond financials.
CASAN’s volunteer application form, for example, is telling in terms of the variety of services offered to asylum seekers; volunteers specialize in housing, transportation, tech support, language assistance, legality, education, and hospitality, and social support.
Hospitality volunteer, Delia Clerk, said how once a week while the mother of one family was at work, she would look after her daughter as a self-described grandmother figure.
“We think of them as our neighbors,” Steinbauer said of asylum seekers “They are here to stay.”
CASAN is looking for additional volunteers of any expertise. To apply, donate, or get involved, visit their website: http://www.casanvermont.org
Editor's Note: Abbie Kopelowitz is a student at the University of Vermont and a reporter for the Community News Service, a student-powered partnership with Vermont newspapers.
Correction: This article was updated at 6:55 p.m. Oct. 13 to correct that the government’s asylum application is free.