Institutional News, Local Impact

Afghan Refugees, Locals, Faculty, Staff, and Students Share Nowruz

Members of the regional Afghan community, people from local volunteer and professional refugee support organizations, and Bennington College faculty, staff, and students gathered for the community’s first multi-cultural celebration, the Persian New Year. 

Nearly 100 people gathered at 3 pm on Saturday, March 18 in the Great Room at Lake Paran to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It was the first large-scale event that brought the newly resettled Afghan community, professionals and volunteers working toward refugee resettlement, and Bennington College faculty, staff, and students together. 

Several of the Afghan families in attendance are among those who relocated to Vermont following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. They arrived in January 2022. Other Afghan families traveled from as far as Brattleboro and Albany, an hour away, to attend.

“I had a very good time,” said Basiqa Sadat, a local Afghan refugee who  works at the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union’s preschool on Division Street and attended the celebration with her family. It was especially nice to see, “everybody coming to talk about Nowruz [and] our culture.” 

Özge Savaş is a critical and applied social psychologist and a faculty member at Bennington College who helped organize the event. She grew up in Turkey and explains how the Turkish government, like the Taliban, banned Nowruz. Police attacked those who celebrated it, she said.

“l wasn’t introduced to Nowruz until college, and it was the Kurdish student body in my college in Turkey who celebrated it,” said Savaş. “It was maybe one of the first truly multicultural experiences that l had. So, it is special for me that my students are exposed to these traditions that are under attack by oppressive regimes.”  

Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on 21 March. The 3,000-year-old holiday marks the beginning of the new year and is observed by more than 300 million people all around the world, including those in the Balkans, the Black Sea Basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and other regions. 

Grace Winslow is a co-founder of Bennington County Open Arms (BCOA), a volunteer group that supports and has sponsored some of the Afghan families. She also helped organize the event and served as emcee with the help of translator Sohaila Nabizada of Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) in Brattleboro

For Winslow, the timing makes sense. 

“New Year’s on the first of January is so cold and dark,” she explained. “This seems like the best possible, most natural time to celebrate the new year.” 

Known for valuing peace and solidarity between generations, reconciliation, neighborliness, Nowruz is a time for people to reflect on the past year's joys and sorrows and make wishes for the new year, Savaş explained. 

Observers of the holiday often clean their houses in preparation for Nowruz and buy new clothes to wear to festivities. Several objects—including fresh grass growing in a dish, a sweet pudding made of wheat germ, coins, vinegar, apple, garlic, and sumac—are laid out on a table with candles and painted eggs. Each object represents a different hope for the coming year. 

Tulips and other flowers represent the return of spring. Those for the Bennington event were donated by Abuela’s Plant Boutique and Floral Design Studio on Benmont Avenue in Bennington. 

Those who celebrate Nowruz visit friends and relatives and enjoy food, music, and dancing. At the Bennington event, music played, and children sang while the crowd clapped in time. 

Yasmine Fundi ’25 is a Bennington College student from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a practitioner of the Baháʼí faith, adherents to which also celebrate Nowruz. She helped organize the event and said the children singing was “my best moment of the celebration.” 

Fundi continued, “I speak French, and I assure you that I did not capture anything that was sung. But the essence of their singing was what touched my heart.”

Late in the event, Afghan men performed traditional Nowruz dances.

“In a room full of diverse people, all for the common goal, which is the celebration of Nowruz, had revived the warmth of home in my heart,” Fundi shared. “I had found a community of which I felt within me that I was a part.” 

A rich array of Afghan cuisine, catered by Aria Kabab on Central Avenue in Albany, was enjoyed by all. Those who were unfamiliar asked the Afghans about the dishes and praised their deliciousness. 

“The food, it was very good,” said Sadat. “[It was] all Afghan food.” 

Despite this festive community celebration and having celebrated with her family at their home, Sadat noted her longing for the Nowruz celebrations she had known in the past. 

“All Afghans miss that celebration,” she said. 

Winslow acknowledged our community’s inability to truly understand what it must be like for our new Afghan neighbors. 

“We can’t even really know everything they have given up,” she said. “But we can start to have them feel like maybe this can be home too.” 

“Through refugee resettlement Bennington is becoming home to caring, talented people from all around the world,” said Jack Rossiter-Munley, a local Case Manager and the Interim Office Lead for the ECDC, one of the refugee resettlement agencies working to resettle Afghans. “I hope that many more events like this celebration can take place in the future here in Bennington.