Burlington acts as a haven for refugees

On Sunday, Sept. 27, he, along with six other refugees living in Burlington, recounted his story in Champlain College’s Alumni Auditorium.”I was free from being a prisoner in my own country, but I did not know I was going into another prison in the refugee camp in Thailand,” Sein said of his experience before resettlement to the United States in 2003.Although experiences differ drastically from one refugee to another, the horrific commonality among refugees settling in Burlington, and in many other locations, is the tragedy that they endured leaving their home and everything they know.”Refugees are legally defined as people who are outside of their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group and who cannot or do not want to return home,” according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in an Overview of Refugee Resettlement.When students think of the green and gold of Vermont, green cards do not come to mind very often.  In a school with a large white majority, the idea that in addition to being the home of UVM, Burlington is the home of thousands of refugees crosses minds even less.From 1989 to 2007, 4,462 refugees resettled in Vermont, according to the USCRI, and there are more than 14,000,000 refugees worldwide.Only one percent of that enormous population is granted resettlement.  Ninety-eight percent of refugees living in Vermont live in Chittenden County, UVM Professor of Geography Pablo Bose said. Bose questions if it is more difficult for refugees to settle in Vermont as opposed to other major metropolitan areas.He thinks this partly because in Vermont, Africans and others may stand out as being different more than in large cities, due to Vermont’s overwhelming white majority, Bose said. The coordinator of volunteer services for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) Laurie Stavrand, however, feels there is an advantage to resettling in Vermont. “Most of the programs are federal programs, so the resources are not going to be that different from one area to another,” Stavrand said. “The advantage of a place like Burlington is it’s a welcoming, supportive community and people are not getting lost in a big metropolitan area.”There is a wide range of service providers that all work together in the Vermont and Burlington community, according to Stavrand.Many refugees work in the large agricultural community in Vermont.  Having this large agricultural sector aids in alleviating the pressure for decent jobs, especially in the current recession.”Our Burmese population has had a lot of jobs up in Colchester and Charlotte working on farms,” Stavrand said.  “We are continually making new connections with farmers.”Stavrand said that the UVM community and volunteers from the Burlington community are tremendously supportive in the resettlement of thousands of refugees.”The people [in the UVM community] are the most incredible people and are part of our volunteer community,” Stavrand said.Aileen Ozay worked as an intern for VRRP from May to September of this year.”It’s a very multifaceted organization,” Ozay said.  “There is an ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor. Beyond that, there is job placement and transitional cash assistance.”Ozay, like many other volunteers and interns, is inspired by the refugees’ optimism despite the tragedy they have faced. “I think the volunteers feel like they get more out of it than they give,” Stavrand said.Stavrand cited language, finding good jobs and housing as the biggest challenges when resettling refugees. Refugees have “the same problem as a student,” Stavrand said. “It’s hard to find good, affordable housing — because of that, it’s not unusual for people to live a little more crowded than they might otherwise.”VRRP’s main goal is “welcoming [refugees] and helping them to transition,” Stavrand said.  “When people come here, they are starting from scratch.” Bose is currently researching transportation, mobility and access for refugees in Vermont and viewing that through the lens of environmental justice.  He said that he is looking at where people are living and what works and what doesn’t in transportation.”With the tides of the times, there are different populations that we are flooded with,” Ozay said. “It’s completely reliant on the political unrest or instability in other countries.”Although the most prevalent nationalities of refugees in Burlington are Bhutanese and Somali-Bantus, a small amount of Iraqi refugees have sought respite in Burlington as well.”They live in a situation where they are in constant fear of being brought back to the country where they [ran] from,” Iraqi refugee Lara Mahmood said of the others in her refugee camp. She lived in a Syrian refugee camp for many years, which she discussed in the VRRP panel held on Sept. 27.‘They come from a whole different demographic,” Ozay said of the small amount of Iraqi refugees resettling in Burlington. “They had cars, they had homes and due to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq they are forced to be displaced.””I had to start my life over from zero,” Mahmood said.