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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

The Pragmatist

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Center, which was founded in 1980 to provide critical services to refugees resettling in the state. Since efforts began in 1975, the US has resettled about 2.6 million refugees, as of 2009. Around 300 refugees a year arrive in Vermont.

Burlington was designated a refugee resettlement center because it has sufficient employment and housing opportunities to support an influx of immigrants. Vietnamese were among the first to arrive, followed by large numbers of Bosnians in the 1990s and then refugees from various African countries. In recent years, Somali-Bantus, Iraqis, Bhutanese, Nepalese and Burmese have been the largest groups of refugees. Somali-Bantu women in brightly colored headscarves and wraps have become a common sight in the Old North End, and recent immigrants have brought their ethnic food to restaurants, street carts, farmers’ markets and even to the local co-op.

But why Vermont? As one of the whitest states in the nation, it does not immediately bring to mind an image of diversity or acceptance. Yet over 200 volunteers in the Burlington area have made a commitment to helping individual families.

I grew up in a small town that did not have its own high school, and my brother and I chose to attend Burlington High School because it offered a diverse community in homogenous Vermont.

I was lucky to have the chance to tutor in an ESL class with a Somali-Bantu girl named Amino. She was a couple of years older than I was, and was already married and taking care of a young daughter. Amino wanted to make sure her daughter would grow up being able to speak English, and was therefore trying to learn herself. Every so often we would practice reading an English children’s book so that Amino could go home and read it to her daughter.

Amino’s story is representative of the experience of other Somali-Bantu teenagers who move to the United States. They may have had limited access to English in a refugee camp, and they enter the American school system at a time where most students have formed somewhat rigid friendship groups. It was difficult to talk with Amino about her life outside the classroom.

Language represents the crucial barrier between many high-school-age refugees and their American peers. Younger refugees who enter the school system pick up English quickly and become better integrated socially with their classmates. Often these younger children act as interpreters for their parents, significantly altering the family dynamic. Somali-Bantu adults who have little experience with English tend to rely on the tightly-knit Somali-Bantu community in the Burlington area.

Still, Vermont is one of the few states where individuals can attend school after the age of 18, which is an essential opportunity for many immigrants. Even if they come to the U.S. as 17 or 18-year-olds, they can take advantage of English classes at the high school for several years.

Middlebury students can explore their interests in international issues not just by studying abroad, but by engaging in the critical experience of refugees resettling here in Vermont. Two groups on campus are working to address the language needs of the refugee groups in the Burlington area – one with primarily Burmese youths and the other with Somali-Bantu adults. Look into how you can get involved!