The Newest Americans
- By tom weaver
Refugee resettlement enriches the culture of Vermont and UVM
by Thomas Weaver
In the heart of Burlington’s Old North End, a neighborhood that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was home to many French Canadians who had migrated south for work in the mills, stands St. Joseph’s School. It isn’t difficult to deduce the language that once flowed as freely as English on these densely packed streets. “École Nazareth,” the original name when the school opened in 1929, is chiseled in stone over the entrance.
Today, a side door at the school has a new sign in new languages, readily offering a sense of the latest generation of new Americans who are making this neighborhood home. “Enter here,” translated into Swahili, Somalian, and a handful of other languages, greets visitors at the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, which recently moved into new headquarters in a section of the old school.
Walk around the neighborhood and signs of change are abundant. Mom and Pop places like JR’s Corner Store, The Shopping Bag (home of Vermont’s best burger, the Scibec Sizzler), and Dion’s Locksmith still dot North Street. But you’ll also find Himalayan Food Market, Brixton Halaal, Farah’s Place, and Mawuhi African Market. Somali women and girls draped in flowing, vibrant dresses—who at first startled the eye like red tulips in February—are now a familiar part of the streetscape here.
While every state in the nation has a refugee resettlement program, the small population and relative homogeneity of Vermont make the new Americans stand out more than in, say, Atlanta or Seattle. Nearly six thousand refugees have resettled in Vermont since 1989, largely in the urban/suburban core of Chittenden County, with the help of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
From the program’s headquarters in Colchester, Executive Director Judy Scott G’96 shares the definition of refugee as established by the Geneva Convention: “A person who cannot return to their homeland for fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political belief, or membership in a social group.”
Refugee camps are basically “human warehouses,” Scott continues and notes the sobering statistic that less than one percent of the world’s refugees will ever be placed in another country.
The population that has resettled in Vermont across the past twenty-three years is built of people from more than thirty countries. There are more than one hundred refugees each from Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Sudan, Russia, Iraq, and Burma. The greatest concentrations have come in waves—Vietnamese (1,056), Bosnians (1,710), Somalians (573), and Bhutanese (787).
A familiar line in the story of many: “The first time I saw snow was when our plane landed in Vermont.”
As the state’s population profile grows more diverse, Beverly Colston, director of UVM’s ALANA Student Center, puts that change in a broader context. “It is a mix of the established Vermonters with this influx of fresh new Vermonters that’s going to make things the best they can be,” she says. “That’s American energy. It’s not complacent; it’s ambitious; it’s desirous of growth and change. Folks come and they seek a new life, and they have the courage to throw themselves into the unknown to do that.”
BIJOUX BAHATI '12
As new UVM graduate Bijoux Bahati describes the challenges of her personal journey—from the Democratic Republic of Congo to four years in a refugee camp in Tanzania to arriving in Burlington with her parents and siblings in 2004—she often returns to learning English.
Fluent in Swahili and Kibembe (a dialect native to the northern Congo), and proficient with some French, adding a fourth language would pose a formidable barrier to academic, social, and work life, she says.
In an insightful autoethnography that Bahati wrote as her McNair Scholars project at UVM, she describes the particular challenges of adapting to a new culture and learning a new language simultaneous with the myriad personal issues faced by any adolescent. With special poignancy, she describes the terror of reading aloud a paragraph from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in her Burlington High School American Literature class, and the embarrassment when she reads the word “nigger” rather than glossing over it with “the n-word,” as all the other students seem to know to do.
In her writing and in conversation, Bahati displays a keen sense of her own identity. She talks of misconceptions that lead some to see refugees as “empty vessels” devoid of experience or, perhaps, with memories of only misery when they resettle in a new homeland. Bahati’s narrative captures her own more bitter than sweet moment of leaving good friends and community behind in the Tanzanian refugee camp to enter an unknown world where her race clearly stamped her as “the other.”
Susan Comerford, her academic advisor, says coming to know Bahati has been a mutual learning experience, bringing the social work professor full circle to her own years working in refugee camps.
“Keeping in touch with my culture is part of me. I’m obligated to carry that with me,” Bahati says. “Otherwise, it’s like losing the self in the process of acculturating. So, this is home for me. The idea of separating who I was from who I’m becoming, it wouldn’t make sense to me. So it is my goal to try to embrace both and see myself as not only one or the other, but both together.”
The abstraction of this duality is made nicely concrete by two of Bahati’s favorite diversions—West African dance and snowboarding.
Her study of social work is driven by wanting to help others with the dramatic life transitions she has gracefully negotiated herself. “The idea of helping people and meeting them where they are in the process of trying to figure life out, really,” she says. “Caring for people.”
At commencement, Bahati was one of two graduates awarded the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the success of the students’ UVM years and the expectation that they will make major contributions in their fields of interest. Her next step toward that is graduate school for a master’s in social work. Accepted into the program at the University of Illinois, Bahati has deferred enrollment for a year with the hope of grounding her undergraduate experience through work in the Burlington refugee community.
WHO ARE THESE GIRLS?
Ask around campus about connections to the Vermont refugee community and you’ll soon find yourself in Pablo Bose’s office on the first floor of Old Mill. The assistant professor of geography has a casual affability. Wearing a sweatshirt and a stiff-brimmed Vancouver Canucks cap, he looks a bit like the graduate student he was not so long ago. A native of India, raised in Canada, and now at home in the United States, Bose has lived the transnationalism that is at the heart of his scholarly work.
Before coming to Vermont in 2007 through UVM’s Henderson Fellowship Program, an effort to build faculty diversity, Bose worked at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto. At first, he wondered where he would find his community focus in Vermont.
But he soon found that the refugee population was not only here, but was intriguingly diverse in its mix. Many resettlement areas have a particular concentration of nationalities, Bose explains. Iraqis in Dearborn, Michigan; Bhutanese in Erie, Pennsylvania; Burmese in Albany, New York. Vermont stands out for the broad mix of countries and cultures represented in the population. “It’s created these unique sorts of both opportunities and tensions,” Bose says. “It’s taken me a long time to build up a relationship and some level of trust with the refugee communities. But it’s been a really good—really, really, really good—experience for me.”
Bose’s community-based research—completed, in- progress, or in planning—explores issues such as transportation, food, and fostering small business start-ups, among others. He’s seeking funding for a study that could have national application as a more systematic way to measure resettlement success in the United States, a metric that is sorely lacking, Bose says. Typically, employment is the only measure, but a more valid accounting would look at transportation, housing, healthcare, employment, and education.
A number of faculty members in the College of Education and Social Services are also directly involved with the community via their blended research and teaching pursuits. Alan Tinkler, assistant professor of education, stresses the wisdom of building on community resources instead of necessarily creating new ones. “In the service-learning ethos, learning should be a true community need,” Tinkler says. “It shouldn’t be the university barreling down the hill. We’ve tried to be very mindful of the needs of the community.”
With support from a Learn and Serve America Grant, Tinkler has added a service component to his course exploring academic literacies across content areas. His students work in tutoring relationships with local youth at Burlington’s King Street Center, the O’Brien Community Center in Winooski, Burlington High School, and Winooski High School. Many of the students served by the centers and the schools are new Americans and English learners.
This spring, as controversy played out across the pages of the local paper regarding diversity in the Burlington schools, test scores, and English language learners, the headlines gave immediate relevance to the work of Tinkler and his students as they aid English learners and study the literacy practices that can best help them be successful.
Tinkler and his College of Education and Social Services colleague Jennifer Hurley both note that the strengths of new American students and their families should be focused upon as much as the needs. Hurley, an assistant professor in early childhood special education, says her interest in connecting her research and teaching with the transnational population in the local schools was piqued by the diversity in her son’s pre-school classroom and, also, simply the changing scene she saw on the street: “There are these girls waiting for the bus in these beautiful dresses. Who are these girls? What are they doing? What’s that about?”
Hurley has earned a federal grant to help UVM educate a new generation of early childhood special educators (for which there is a great need) who will have the increasingly essential experience of working in culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
She is passionate about the work and tears wells up as she says, “I want teachers who say, ‘Wow, my classroom is twelve languages strong.’ I get really mad when I hear teachers complain that they have to deal with these kids who are English language learners. That makes our schools stronger. It’s not something that teachers have to ‘deal with’—it’s something that makes our kids stronger.”
Across the university, faculty have been proactive and innovative in seeing community needs and meshing it with their research.
Psychology’s Karen Fondacaro has worked with her graduate students to establish a clinic to assist refugees coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. The College of Medicine’s Dr. Andrea Green directs the Pediatric Immigrant Clinic at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Environmental Program faculty member Kit Anderson ’76 G’81 has connected her students and classes in ethnobotany with the New Farms for New Americans project in Burlington’s Intervale. Education’s Cynthia Reyes and her students have worked with refugee children in Winooski’s highly diverse schools to explore their personal identities through digital storytelling. (See uvm.edu/vq for links to additional stories on several of these initiatives.)
Pablo Bose notes the need to make sure such interest remains a good thing—to, in essence, avoid that “university barreling down the hill” scenario described by Alan Tinkler. Refugee communities may not always wish to be singled out or answer a barrage of surveys. To avoid that, Bose is working within the university to establish systems to coordinate new research and share existing work.
TUIPATE MUBIAY G’08
Though he came to the United States as an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1994, not via refugee resettlement, Tuipate Mubiay knows well the refugee’s trial of adapting to a new language and a new land. In his two current jobs, one as an academic advisor for Community College of Vermont; the other as diversity coordinator for the HowardCenter social services agency, he helps students transition to a new home and helps the community become a more inclusive place.
Another role, founder of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, provides illustration of his commitment to bringing people together. Telling the story of AALV’s inception, Mubiay relates that he was talking with Congolese friends at a birthday party when the idea was raised:
“I see the Vietnamese have an association; Bosnians have an association; why can’t we have an association?” I said. My friends said, “We can have a Congolese association.” I said, “No, let’s not think about the Congo only. We have to think about Africa. So we will create an Africa association.” They said, “No, just Congolese.” And I said, “No, Africa association. We have to think big.”
“And, finally, I won,” he adds with a smile.
UVM social work faculty member Susan Comerford, mentor and friend to Mubiay, says, “That’s part of the riches people from these populations bring to the university, such a can-do attitude and such vision. Tuipate’s vision for a pan-African approach comes directly out of his experience in the wars there.”
Beyond pan-African, AALV has grown to serve more than three thousand people, a resource for the new American community regardless of country or continent of origin. Mubiay continues to help guide AALV in his role on the board of directors.
Mubiay credits his mother and grandmother for inspiring him to human rights work, particularly in regard to women and children. “They taught me how to be good people, how to do good things, and how to help people. That is what they were doing; they were all the time taking care of people,” he says.
Mubiay’s own American higher education journey began at Community College of Vermont with an associate’s degree, continued at Johnson State College for his bachelor’s, and he added a master’s in social work from UVM. In his student advising role at CCV, which educates many new Americans, he’s dedicated to helping others take similar steps.
“Not only do I understand their culture, but I understand the circumstances in which they’ve lived for years,” Mubiay says. “They have been resilient all these years and determined now to go to college and to have a higher education to change their lives.”
Meeting with Mubiay, these students see his diplomas on the wall, honors from professional associations, and an outstanding alumnus award from Johnson State. “I talk to them about hard work, hard work and creating relationships in the community,” Mubiay says. “But I cannot tell them it will be easy; that would be a lie. I tell my students that you have to work three or four times more to prove that you are a good student.”
A LUSH LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
The Congolese cook in her Old North End kitchen couldn’t have found a more receptive guest. “It’s bofrut!” Caroline Casey ’12 exclaimed, thrilled to see the fried bread served in many African countries.
A junior-year semester in Ghana seeded Casey’s love of bofrut, and a senior-year internship with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program put her in that warm Burlington kitchen last winter. She’s driven the process of creating a cookbook of recipes from the refugee community that will eventually be sold as a VRRP fundraiser.
“Right before I came over here, I was at a Sudanese woman’s house making okra stew,” Casey says, sitting down for an interview in March. “The whole thing has been incredible. I walk into these homes that don’t have two cents to rub together, and they welcome me, feed me ridiculous amounts of food, tell me their stories.”
The experience has shifted thoughts Casey had about working abroad; she is now more drawn to the diversity found at home. Asked if she had any concept of this transnational presence in Burlington before the cookbook project, she fixes a level stare. “I had no idea of how many people there were or the diversity,” she says. “I’ve cooked with people from ten or twelve different countries—Bhutanese, Burmese, Sudanese, Somalian, Iraqi, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Congolese…
“It’s been a huge eye-opening experience for me to see these people who have been in the most heinous situations, living in refugee camps for eighteen years,” Casey says. “They are so happy and consider themselves so lucky to be here. It has put a lot in perspective for me.”
As Casey graduates and considers what’s next, she can look to other recent grads who have taken undergraduate experience connecting with local refugee populations and turned it into their next step. Pablo Bose’s former student Katy Jones ’10 oversees placement for six field offices of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants. Grace Henley ’10, who worked with Kit Anderson on a senior thesis involving Burlington’s New Farms for New Americans, is working as refugee agriculture coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. And Class of 2012 grad Robyn Suarez’s experience tutoring hearing-impaired members of the local refugee community meshes with Fulbright support she earned to spend the next year teaching in Malaysia.
In addition to the experience some UVM students are gaining working directly in the community, building the number of transnational students enrolled at the university promises to significantly deepen the classroom experience for all.
Susan Comerford, associate dean of the College of Education and Social Services and a professor of social work, notes that balancing such diverse perspectives in the classroom can be a challenge. “I think our job as faculty is to create as much ambiguity in the classroom as we can and then wallow around in it together,” Comerford says. “Really, that’s what complexity is. We live in a very complex world. Multiple perspectives are almost trite now. There are multiple micro-perspectives all the time. And what you really want, I think, in a lush learning environment is that everybody who comes into the room leaves with a perspective that has been deepened by every other person in that room.”
Adna Karabegovic ’11
Adna Karabegovic ’11 didn’t view her college years as a liberation from home or a voyage of self-discovery. Such romanticism shrinks in the face of the young woman’s self-assured, pragmatic outlook. UVM made sense—close to home, financial help came via a scholarship as the first generation in her family to attend college in the United States, and she could continue the Church Street Marketplace internship she landed as a senior at Burlington High School that has led to a full-time job in marketing.
As Karabegovic talks over coffee in Burlington’s New Moon Café, the hard realities that have shaped her unfold. “In 1992, my mother and my sister and I left Bosnia to go to Germany,” she says. “At that point, people were saying it would only be for three months or so. Nobody really wanted to believe that there would be such a thing as ethnic cleansing, that there would be such warfare.”
The Karabegovics, a Muslim family, had left their homeland for good. Two months later, Karabegovic’s father joined his family in Berlin. Facing mandatory military service, which would have forced him to fight neighbors and family, or execution, he made an escape across the border. “To this day, I know the story but don’t know all of the details,” his daughter says. “Certain details he leaves out for protection of other people and himself.”
Adna Karabegovic was nine years old in 1998 when the family arrived in Vermont. Old enough, she says, that her parents were frank about what it would take to create their future in the United States. “Our parents always treated us like adults; they would never lie to us,” she says. “When you pack up all your stuff and you move to a foreign country with nothing, there’s nothing to hide. It’s one of the things that differentiated me.”
Karabegovic’s sister, Dzeneta ’08, explored the refugee experience through a Fulbright grant last year, contrasting Swedish governmental support of refugee communities versus the way programs are structured in the United States. She’s spent the past year studying for a master’s degree in international diplomacy at the University of Chicago.
At UVM and in Burlington, Adna Karabegovic has been open to sharing her family’s past and the personal perspective it can add to understanding global culture, history, and politics. But with the edge of one who has clearly heard a few too many naïve questions in her lifetime, she makes it clear there are limits.
“Sometimes it is a little rude if people ask you automatically where you’re from just because your name is something different,” she says. “I think there’s a way to ask somebody where they’re from and not be as direct. For example, when I say I’m from Bosnia, don’t ask me if I’ve seen somebody get shot. When I say I’m Muslim, don’t ask me why I don’t wear a head-covering. I think doing some research about something or someone before asking them questions would probably be better.”
WE NEED TO LISTEN
It could be better. When asked about the strengths of UVM’s student recruitment ties to the new American community, that sentiment is a familiar refrain from faculty, new American alumni, and administrators across the campus.
Chris Lucier, vice president for enrollment management, says this dual need and opportunity has been consistently voiced in recent planning processes. “As we talked about internationalization a year ago the one thing that came up over and over again among faculty and staff was, ‘What are we doing with our new American population?’” Lucier says.
Lucier and colleagues are working to create new initiatives and build upon existing ones, such as a joint UVM/Community College of Vermont effort that reaches out through an after-school program at Burlington High School to foster college aspiration and preparation among various student populations, refugees among them.
Another key step will be better connecting with various refugee groups through elders in those communities. “We need to listen,” Lucier says. “What has to happen? How do we tell the story that college is a possibility for students? How do we do a better job of helping these students meet the challenge of the college admissions process, which can be difficult for anyone?”
Akol Aguek ’05 G’11
A ceiling-to-floor Sudanese flag hangs on one wall of Akol Aguek’s UVM office. Also on display, two diplomas from primary and high schools in Kenyan refugee camps and two from the University of Vermont, a bachelor’s and an MBA. For the prospective students who meet with the UVM admissions officer, they tell the story of an educational journey, just one part of the harrowing, courageous, and, ultimately, hopeful odyssey of Aguek’s life.
He was one of the Sudanese “Lost Boys,” a generation of young men displaced by brutality and civil war in their homeland. Profiled as a student in Vermont Quarterly in 2004, Aguek described the experience of being one of thousands fleeing across forest, desert, and river. Raising his voice and enunciating each syllable with care, he said: “You are running for your life!”
When Aguek came to Burlington, part of an asylum effort that brought 3,800 Sudanese to the United States in 2001, continuing his education was top priority. Aguek’s host, George Ewins ’55, encouraged him to look no further than his own alma mater.
After a year working in the stockroom at the local Sears store, Aguek enrolled and, a freshman at age twenty-five, moved into the Living and Learning Center. “I got involved, I enjoyed every bit of student life, I loved what I wanted to do,” he says.
UVM has long remained a home for Aguek. Not long after graduation he began work in the admissions office and is currently an assistant director focused, in part, on transfer student issues. His wife, Martha Thiei Machar ’11, is also an alum and added a master’s in accounting to the family collection of UVM degrees in May.
From the time he arrived on U.S. soil, helping his homeland and fellow refugees has been a priority for Aguek. Portions of those first precious paychecks from Sears Roebuck Corp. were sent back to support Sudanese still in the refugee camps. In his duties at UVM he has worked with new refugees on college preparation through the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and does the same with younger audiences at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington.
“Over the long run I may eventually go back to Sudan,” Aguek says. “Not that I would pack all of my belongings and leave—I will always have my roots in Vermont. I feel that sitting on the sidelines and seeing the government of South Sudan dysfunctional is not a good thing. I think going back and making a difference in terms of providing opportunities for needy people, education, healthcare, infrastructure, economic opportunities might be one of the areas I may be involved in.”
The next step in his life will move him a step closer to that vision. Aguek, his wife, and their five-year-old son Bior will move to Boston in the fall, where he will pursue a master’s in international affairs and social policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. As he looks to the future, Aguek’s gratitude for this admirable life he has built from a rare opportunity shines forth as he describes that day in the Kakuma Refugee Camp when he looked on the bulletin board and saw his name on a fateful list.
“The first question they ask is, ‘We want you to come to the United States, are you interested?’ And I say, ‘Of course!’” Aguek recalls with a laugh. “So when I had the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen, I said, ‘I have to become a U.S. citizen because it was America that said come. It was America that chose me.’”
Down the line, Lucier envisions the potential of enhanced scholarship support, an admissions staffer dedicated to new American recruitment, a pathways program that could help recent immigrants build their English skills before full admission to the university.
Lucier is partnering with the College of Education and Social Services’ Jen Hurley and Susan Comerford as they chart UVM’s course on these possible new initiatives.
It’s difficult to imagine one better qualified to help craft this process than Comerford, who began work in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border just two weeks after her graduation from college. Her passion for human rights and refugee issues would lead to years of on-the-ground experience throughout Asia, often in dangerous circumstances, and advocacy in Washington, D.C. Looking back, she says, “It was one of those experiences where you’re incredibly excited and scared to death at the same moment. When those two come together, you know that it’s something you can’t afford not to do.”
During her fourteen years on the UVM faculty, Comerford has worked closely with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and has striven to build bridges for mutual learning among students, faculty, and the VRRP staff.
She’s also been a mentor to new American students such as Bijoux Bahati ’12 and Tuipate Mubiay G’08 during their years on campus and beyond. She recalls a particular class in which Mubiay and two other students whose first language was not English presented final projects. After the presentations, Comerford had an impulse to ask each of the new American students to stand up and deliver five minutes of their report in their native language.
“It was stunning. It was a chill-producing situation for me and the entire class,” Comerford says. “We make these silent judgments about other people based on their competency in English. When the other students heard them in their mother tongue and saw what they were capable of doing, it changed everything. We need those shockers in our system to get us outside, to put a little crack in the little egg of how we see the world—and to start having a conversation right there.”