By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — When Ned Castle met Jean Luc and David Dushime at his father’s company picnic in Burlington last summer, the young ethnographer could only speculate about the distance the two young Rwandans had covered to arrive in Vermont.
The Dushime brothers worked for Castle’s father at Rhino Foods, the company that makes the cookie dough, among other goodies, for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Jean Luc Dushime attended Champlain College during his time off.
Castle had recently moved back to his hometown of Charlotte after dropping out of a graduate program in photography — he doesn’t actually consider himself a photographer, just “an interested person with a tape recorder and a camera.”
So he set out to document their stories.
What Castle found after sitting down with the Dushimes was a window into the community of refugees living in Vermont. Over the next eight months, through connections he made while volunteering for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, Castle interviewed and photographed 13 other refugees from around the world.
His finished work, a collection of portraits and stories called “In Their Own Words, Stories from Refugees Settled in Vermont Communities,” is on display at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury through June 14.
At a gallery talk on Tuesday evening, Castle explained his motivation for the project.
“It’s not that I want people drop everything and start volunteering at the local refugee organization, which would be great,” he said. “But it’s a willingness to be open to the (idea) … that the places we’ve come from and the experiences we’ve had are incredibly important to the people that we are.”
Earlier this week, as part of a series organized by Middlebury College and the Folklife Center to complement Castle’s exhibit, three of the refugees Castle interviewed, including Jean Luc Dushime, shared their stories in person in a presentation at Middlebury College.
Dushime was 14 years old and attending a Rwandan boarding school in 1994 when the genocide in his home country broke out between the two major ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. Two days before Dushime was supposed to go home for a school break the president was killed.
“The next day the radio played classic music and they made an announcement that everybody had to stay home and that the president was shot down,” he said. “I couldn’t call my parents. We didn’t know what was going on. So I was stuck at school for a few months.”
After about three months, as violence increased outside, the school began running out of food, Dushime said. His mother, who lived in the country’s capital, Kigali, and worked for the government, managed to send friends to pick Dushime and his brother up.
Leaving the school, they ran into people in the street asking for identification to determine their ethnicity — Hutu or Tutsi.
“If they saw how you looked, if you were tall enough and slim and had a straight nose, that meant you were Tutsi,” Dushime said. But with a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father, Dushime’s ethnicity wasn’t that simple.
By the end of 1994, his family moved to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo where they lived in a refugee camp that was bursting at the seams. About 2 million people fled Rwanda after the initial genocide, Dushime said, and 100,000 of them could fill any one camp at a time.
“People were starving, there was disease all around,” he said.
But Dushime’s journey was just beginning. In 1996, the Rwandan army invaded Congo and began to destroy all the refugee camps along the border.
Joining the masses of displaced people, Dushime and his family started walking westward. They would wake up at 3 in the morning and walk until five in the evening.
They did this for six months, covering about 4,000 miles from one side of the Congo to the other. Along the way, Dushime contracted cholera and malaria. His mother sold her wedding ring in exchange for food. Twice they crossed the massive Congo River, where many people drowned.
“You couldn’t give money to cross because people didn’t know money, so you had to give your belt, your watch, shoes, shirt,” Dushime said.
But finally he and his family arrived in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, where they would settle for the next few years.
“In Brazzaville I was shocked because people were partying and living like normal,” Dushime said. “When we were walking I thought all the world was descending, and I moved to a place where nobody cared what I went through, nobody knew about it. I was fighting myself. I went back to high school with rich kids, talking about movies.”
He finished high school in Congo, graduated from college in 2004, and two years ago his family was chosen from 3,000 applicants to resettle in the United States.
In a year and a half, he’ll earn another degree from Champlain College.
If it were up to Castle, everyone who heard Dushime’s story — and those of the other 12 refugees — would take a moment to reflect on the surprising diversity of paths many people have taken to end up in Vermont.
The transition for refugees is not easy.
“This is the third or fourth country they’ve lived in,” Castle said. “They don’t really want to be in Vermont, they want to be in their homes without conflict, without war, without violence. Coming to Vermont isn’t coming to heaven …. Life is easier in some ways, but it’s harder in others. Socially it’s harder. They didn’t make very much money in the refugee camps, but they didn’t have bills to pay all the time.”
Cleophace Mukebe, a refuge from Congo who spoke on the same stage with Dushime on Sunday, echoed Castle’s sentiment. The Vermont Refuge Settlement Resettlement Program doesn’t focus enough on teaching English in the first eight months after a refugee’s arrival, he said.
“If you want to integrate in a society, language is the key,” Mukebe said.
Addressing a small audience at the Folklife Center on Tuesday, Castle turned to look at the refugee faces hanging on the walls around him.
“If 100,000 people are being displaced by something, that’s 100,000 of these stories,” he said. “This is our community now; this is the Vermont community.”
In conjunction with the Vermont Folklife Center exhibition, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program Director Judy Scott and David Tabaruka, a refugee from Rwanda, will discuss the statewide resettlement program and the experience of refugees in Vermont communities in a lecture at Middlebury College, Hillcrest Hall Room 103, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 20.