A family designated as refugees arrives at Burlington International Airport with just a few bags of belongings. They speak little or no English. They have no idea where they will live — other than among strangers. They must find places to buy food, navigate the school system and learn to drive. At some point, sooner or later, they'll need to see a doctor. Many arrive traumatized and grief-stricken. They've left behind loved ones in war-torn areas or witnessed them murdered, raped or tortured. Some suffered such violence themselves in their homes or in refugee camps.
In Vermont, they will join some 7,000 people with refugee status, many living in neighborhoods of Burlington and Winooski — within the shadow of the University of Vermont. Their connection to the University has grown beyond physical proximity. Some of the institution's most esteemed faculty have devoted time, attention, scholarship and research to better understand and ease the transition for those forced to leave their home countries and resettle in the United States.
Susan Comerford, Ph.D., associate professor of social work, wants to prepare her students to better understand the people with refugee status whom they might meet in the field when they practice in Vermont. "They will not go to that meeting blind. They will go to that meeting with a depth of understanding," says Comerford, who teaches both an undergraduate course and a master's seminar on working with refugees, as well as an undergraduate course on diversity. "I'm trying to increase their awareness of the many possible stories that people of refugee status carry."
Such empathy for those coming from vastly different backgrounds helps future social workers, even if they don't see refugee clients, learn to recognize their preconceptions and personal biases and step outside of their own experience. Working with refugees teaches them to consider the larger systemic and contextual circumstances that lead to individual struggles.
"Try to think about it with a different set of lenses," Comerford says to the 13 students in her master's seminar. Comerford often shares her own experience with her students, going back to her days right out of college, when she was in her early twenties and worked for nonprofit groups on the Thai-Cambodian border and other conflict-riddled parts of Southeast Asia. The human resilience she saw in the face of horrific acts still resonates with her today.
Since that initial exposure, Comerford has kept one foot in refugee work. She is a consultant for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, as well as programs in other states. She provides many of her services pro bono, quietly and behind the scenes.
During a gathering of her master's of social work (MSW) class this past spring, part of the discussion focused on the appropriate level of personal involvement that a social worker should have with clients. The students questioned whether typical professional boundaries should shift when new American clients follow their own customs by offering a gift or a dinner invitation to their homes.
"It's a very Western notion," Comerford explained of the inherent "power imbalance" and line drawn between a professional and the person served. "The amount of clear distinction we have in the U.S. is a culturally bound notion."