Senior education major Madina Haji has become a leading advocate for local refugee community

Memories of the Kenyan refugee camp where Madina Haji spent the first nine years of her life are never far from her mind. They have motivated the UVM senior to work toward a degree in middle-level education so she can one day teach in Somalia. In the meantime, she is building a reputation as a leading advocate for refugees in Vermont.

Haji’s passion to help new refugees started not long after she arrived here in 2004 with her mom, four younger siblings and a few handbags with all their possessions. She started reaching out to refugee students in her high school, and later helped them apply to college while a student at the Community College of Vermont. At UVM, she has taught at a local elementary school and worked on a major study focused on how to strengthen the partnership between refugee families and the Winooski School District.

Haji’s latest endeavor, however, as a Civil Rights Intake Specialist for the Vermont District of the U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Office may be her most impactful. The part-time contractor position has taken Haji around the state to community events, public meetings and other places where refugees gather to listen to their concerns and explain how the U.S. Department of Justice can assist them.

“I love going out into the community and talking to people about civil rights and what they can do if they find themselves in a situation where they think their rights have been violated,” says Haji, whose parents fled to Kenya from war-torn Somalia before she was born. “A lot of people don’t know that they even have rights, so letting them know what they are and what they can do when they are mistreated is very rewarding."

Helping refugees through service and research

Haji’s outreach efforts are often based on experiences she went through as a new refugee. At CCV, for example, she worked with Parents for Change to help refugee students at her former high school navigate the college application process. “A lot of them didn’t know anything about the process,” says Haji, who received inaccurate advice that prevented her from enrolling at UVM. “I was the only youth involved in the project and I think students liked being with someone they knew who was around their age.”

After transferring to UVM, Haji’s goal was to become a nurse and help people in Somalia. After realizing nursing wasn’t a good fit, she turned her focus to education. “I have a weak system and found that I couldn’t witness people suffering so much,” says Haji. “Now I want to work in schools, because Somalia needs big help. I want to do whatever I can to make it safe and livable and free again.”

In addition to being a fulltime student and working 35 hours a week at Sears, Haji has worked for the Burlington Parks & Recreation Summer Nutrition Program and as a substitute teacher at the Integrated Arts Academy. These experiences have made her a valuable member of a UVM research team led by Assistant Professor Shana Haines and Associate Professor Cynthia Reyes in the College of Education and Social Sciences.

Haji, who speaks Mai Mai and is a devout Muslim, arranges interviews with Somali-Bantu families during which she serves as an interpreter and cultural liaison for the study focused on improving partnerships with refugee families and local school systems. She works alongside doctoral students Achraf Alamatouri of Syria and Hemant Ghising from Bhutan, who are also conducting similar studies for their dissertations in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. 

“We wanted to engage students who have had the same experiences as the people in the communities in which we’re doing the research to help guide the process and be our leaders and cultural brokers,” says Reyes. “I can’t overstate how much help it has been to be able to talk with Hemmet, Achraf and Madina about the experiences of the people we interview and what it means, especially later when we debrief,” adds Hayes.

The not-so-easy path to becoming a U.S. citizen

Haji’s path to becoming a U.S. citizen in March of 2017 was not easy. As a teenager, she wanted to return to Kenya after enduring racists comments from classmates. Over time, though, she grew confident in her abilities to help refugees overcome similar obstacles, and started to thrive. “Thinking back, there were situations where it was wrong for those people to have acted in those ways to me,” says Haji. “I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know it was a violation of my rights. Now I can let people know that they have resources available to them.”

The signing of an executive order by President Trump limiting access to refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries has Haji concerned about her future plans. Wherever she lands, the people living there will undoubtedly benefit from her passion and expertise. 

“I would like to travel back and forth to help in Somalia, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to considering all that has happened recently with our government,” says Haji, whose relatives were prevented from traveling to the U.S. during the initial ban. “But I’ve grown to love America and would really like to continue on this path if that’s how to works out.”