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Ways of seeing: Labels sometimes mask the deeper story

You might have seen in the news that citizens of Rutland are struggling with the prospect of resettling refugees from Syria into their community. I hope Rutlanders will find a way to work with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP), and when Syrians arrive in central Vermont I hope I can personally reach out to help them resettle here.
Today a staggering 60 million people worldwide are refugees, families forcibly displaced by war, violence or persecution. You’ve seen the images recently from Syria: wrecked cities, overflowing rubber boats, long lines of exhausted walkers, terrified children’s faces. It’s overwhelming. It’s heartbreaking. It’s mind-boggling. I can’t begin to grasp these numbers or these situations or these emotions. I can’t fathom the desperation which would drive a parent to put their child into an overcrowded rubber raft for a nighttime journey to an unknown destination.
These people are far away, I have no prior personal connection, the whole situation seems hopeless, and yet I feel a desire to do something to help, even in some small way.
The United States plans to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the coming year. Vermont Refugee Resettlement Project has successfully resettled 8,000 former refugees in Chittenden County over the past 25 years. I’m glad they are spreading the wealth to other parts of the state.
How does this work? How will these new Americans be welcomed to Vermont?
With maybe 10 days’ advance notice, a family arrives at the Burlington airport. Their VRRP case manager meets them there and takes them to the apartment which the staff has rented for them.
The apartment has been furnished with donated furniture and supplied with basic equipment. A hot meal is waiting for them, as many will not have eaten during their whole travel time. Each family member is given $925 as a one-time stipend. They are expected to get a job (with assistance from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement staff) and be self-sufficient within a few weeks.
Several years ago I signed on as a volunteer with VRRP in Burlington. My job was to be a family friend to a newly arrived family of four from Somalia. The mother and grandmother spoke no English. Being friendly with them was a challenge better met by my family friend partner with a young child to act as icebreaker and entertainer. The two sons, however, were eager to engage with me. Gele was 19 years old, tall and lean, serious but always smiling, quick with a joke. He was already the head of the household and would become a very capable breadwinner. Abdi was 14, round-faced and shyly curious.
This family had fled war in Somalia and lived for more than a decade in the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya. This so-called “temporary” camp opened in 1991 for refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and other nearby countries. A hundred eighty thousand people live here in nylon tents and open-sided structures. The average length of stay is 17 years. Abdi was born in this camp.
So try to imagine if you can all the things about their second-floor apartment in Burlington, which would be completely new and strange to a family from a village in Somalia and the Kakuma camp: a quiet neighborhood, a door that locks, hot and cold running water, a kitchen indoors, a bathroom indoors, electricity, a bed for every person, and daily mail delivery. That’s a lot to get used to!
It’s the job of the family friend to help new arrivals learn the ropes in their new homes and communities. I remember helping Gele deal with their mail. They had an address now, so mail was arriving, real mail and junk mail. When you don’t speak English well, how do you tell the difference for sure between a social security card application and a credit card application from the Bank of America? What about those sweepstakes promotions that tell you you’ll be a millionaire tomorrow if you only sign here and mail the card back? Sorting mail needed to be done a couple of times a week, before Gele mistakenly subscribed to People magazine or lost their Medicaid benefits.
I tutored Abdi during his study halls at Burlington High School. I taught Gele to drive in my own car on the streets of Burlington. Gele wanted some photos to send friends in the camp, so one sunny spring day we did a photo shoot with my phone down near the lake. He looked so proud and glamorous, posing like a movie star on top of a stone wall. He was the man of the house, with a job and a car, some friends, and increasing mastery of English. He was making it in America. His courage and resilience, the hope in his beautiful young black face, brought tears to my eyes that day.
A few years later I met Khara Neopaney, the father of a third-grader at a school in Burlington where I served as principal. The first thing I learned about Khara was that he loved mathematics, and especially teaching mathematics. He had earned an advanced degree in mathematics education while living in a refugee camp for Bhutanese exiles in Nepal, even graduating at the top of his class.
But in this country, without a teaching license, he had been unable to work as a math teacher. OK, I thought, I can help with that. Se we began weekly tutoring sessions, preparing Khara to take Vermont’s teacher exam, the Praxis. Khara got a job teaching mathematics at Winooski High School, but after one year the position was cut. He has not been able to land another teaching job. He supports his family with less satisfying work, and feels frustrated that his training and experience and passion is wasted.
Khara and his wife, Rita, are part of a large extended Bhutanese family and a successful 3,000-member Bhutanese community in Chittenden County, where 300 Bhutanese families own their homes. They are raising funds to build a Hindu temple in Burlington and Khara has recently organized Nepali language and culture classes for the children, “so that they don’t forget their heritage,” he tells me.
Khara and Rita call Bill and me friends, and we do the same.
What have I learned from knowing Khara and Rita, Gele and Abdi, and the other families I have worked with? What insight can I bring to welcoming Syrian families to Vermont?
I believe there is wisdom in two cautions.
First, beware of the single story. The term “refugee” may describe an experience that these new Americans have in common, but it’s not anyone’s whole story. The term “refugee” may call to mind a whole constellation of assumptions about tragedies, hardships and horrible experiences unimaginable to most of us. Some of these assumptions may be true, others may not. To allow “refugee” to become the only story will rob a person of her dignity and the beauty of her full personhood.
Behind the label of refugee is the man who had fruit orchards, a store, a restaurant, and was mayor of his town. Behind the label of refugee is the dentist or the skillful weaver who loved their work. Behind the label of refugee is a mother or father with a heart full of pride and hope in the accomplishments of their children.
If I hope to be a welcoming person, I must hold my mind and heart open to learn the unique story of the person who is now my neighbor.
Second, beware of your own expectations. Of course we want new Americans to be pleased to be here, to be eager to integrate, even to be grateful for our help and friendship. But don’t forget to allow room for grief. Uprooted peoples may have endured loss upon loss: homeland, history, family, everything. Broken spirits and open wounds need time to heal.
Sometimes simply being present and patient, expecting nothing, is the best thing you can do.
I hope there will be many people here in central Vermont who will reach out in welcome to the new Syrian Americans. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program website can help you get started making connection through them. Perhaps you, too, will feel the desire to do something to embrace our new neighbors not as strangers, not as others, but as part of us.
Abi Sessions is a retired educator who lives in Cornwall with her husband, Bill. If you wish to join others in Addison County with an interest in creating a welcoming community, please email Abi at [email protected].

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