On a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Christmas, the Best Buy at Williston's Maple Tree Place is packed with people shopping for satellite radios and plasma TVs. But across the street at Philomena Gicheru's apartment sits a family of African refugees whose wish list is far more basic.
Gicheru, who emigrated from Kenya five years ago, works as a licensed nurse's assistant and volunteers as public relations officer for the nonprofit Association of Africans Living in Vermont. Her visitors, whom she's invited over so they can tell their story to the press, are John and Leah Mudasigana and their four children, aged 10 to 18 months. The family arrived in Vermont last summer, with help from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP). John and Leah are from Burundi, but spent the past 12 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Their children were all born there.
The Mudasigana family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Burlington's Old North End. It's cold there, especially in the children's bedroom -- their heater hasn't worked all winter. Gicheru's apartment, by contrast, is warm and toasty. The six Mudasiganas are crowded onto Gicheru's poofy tan couch. They glance occasionally at her TV, which is tuned to MSNBC. Not that they can follow the news -- none of them speaks English yet, though 10-year-old Oscar and Evangeline, 8, proudly demonstrate the few words and phrases they've learned in school.
Gicheru translates John's Swahili as he explains that he would like to buy the kids some boots, hats and mittens to help them survive their first Vermont winter, but at this point, that purchase seems unlikely. The thin, expressive man is the family's sole wage earner, but he's been out of work since his seasonal employer, the Vermont Tent Company, laid him off in late October.
Finding a job has proven difficult. John says he's inquired at several local companies within walking distance or near the bus line -- he doesn't own a car. But, Gicheru says, "They tell him, 'The language comes first.'"
The family's bills are mounting. They'll be celebrating Christmas, but there probably won't be many gifts exchanged this year. The Mudasiganas are two months behind on their $800 rent, and their $500 monthly stipend from VRRP runs out in March. John has closed their bank account, he says. They can't pay for the phone or the electricity.
So far this holiday season, the only thing the Mudasigana family has received is a letter from their landlord telling them to pay up or move out by December 14.
The United States, long considered "the land of opportunity," accepts 50,000 refugees seeking resettlement each year. Those who end up in Vermont are often brought here through the VRRP, an affiliate of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Since 1980, the VRRP has placed 5000 people, according to director Bob Sanders. The first groups arrived from Vietnam, Bosnia and Russia, but since 2000, most of Vermont's refugees have come from countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Burundi and Congo. From September 2004 to October 2005, the VRRP accepted 160 refugees, the vast majority of them -- including the Mudasigana family -- from Africa.
Most of Vermont's refugees -- and immigrants -- have landed in Chittenden County, particularly in Burlington and Winooski, where there are more jobs and better public transportation. But it's not a perfect fit. Although the Burlington area is large enough to absorb the influx, it's too small to support many agencies devoted solely to acclimatizing foreigners to American life.
Few resources are available to immigrants, who often face many of the same challenges as do refugees. For the latter group, the VRRP is the primary local organization that provides assistance, and the organization's resources are painfully limited, Sanders says. The nonprofit's 18 staff people and 200 volunteers do everything from meeting refugees at the airport to arranging doctor's appointments and English classes to helping them find apartments and jobs. Sometimes volunteers host the families themselves.
For the first four to eight months, the VRRP provides a cash stipend equal to what refugees would receive on public assistance. But after that, families are usually left to fend for themselves. Sanders claims that VRRP sometimes stays involved with families for up to five years, but many refugees -- and people outside of VRRP who work with them -- question the organization's commitment.
Housing is a problem for many, suggests Paul Dettman, executive director of the Burlington Housing Authority. His agency houses a number of African refugee families who couldn't afford their apartments after losing their VRRP assistance. "The current refugee resettlement program is woefully inadequate in terms of the amount of time they stay involved with refugees, particularly financially," Dettman says.
The Mudasigana family is a case in point. They've been here just five months and already seem to feel abandoned. John Mudasigana says two VRRP volunteers were assigned to the family, but he hasn't seen them for three weeks. Both are "very nice single women," John says, speaking through Gicheru, but he doesn't think they fully understand the crisis facing the family.
John adds that he has not yet told VRRP of the eviction notice. He doesn't believe they will help him until he and his family show up at their office in Colchester after they've been turned out. "Then they will have to find a place for us," he insists.
So far, this transient life feels disappointingly close to the one the family left behind. "I am thinking of going back to the refugee camp," John confesses.
But his case worker, Wanza Musavuli, says the situation is not so dire. He says VRRP has already been in touch with the landlord; the letter the Mudasiganas received was not an eviction notice, just a reminder to pay. Since John lost his job, he says the VRRP will increase the family's benefits so they can pay the rent. Musavuli has also contacted the landlord about the heat.
Musavuli says VRRP gave the family a lump sum months ago, but the family spent it, thinking the organization would bail them out of trouble. "I understand they came from camps," he says. "They've been used to situations like that. But here they have to change."
Nevertheless, Sanders acknowledges the VRRP is stretched thin. Top priority for the organization's funds and services is reserved for the newest arrivals. These days VRRP is focused on helping a group of Meskhetian Turks who have relocated from Southwestern Russia to Washington County. "We provide far more support to the average refugee here in Chittenden County than refugees generally get anywhere else in the country," Sanders notes. "But is it enough? Probably not."
Other organizations are available to them, argues Denise Lamoureux, refugee coordinator for the state, noting the VRRP "can't do everything and be everywhere forever," she says. Families who've timed out of the system should be able to tap into the services of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, for example.
But connecting African refugees with local assistance agencies is a challenge across the board. Catherine Simonson, director of the Baird Division at Howard Community Health Services, says her agency could be doing more to serve the African community. The organization does provide counseling and parenting assistance to African refugees, but these cases are almost always referred by another professional. "For many of the refugees, knocking on our door or calling our phone number isn't happening," she says. "There's work to be done, translating what we do in a way that feels comfortable for them."
Enter Lajiri Van Ness-Otunnu.
Last month, the Uganda native began serving as an AmeriCorps/VISTA to help support Africans relocated to the area. Otunnu grew up speaking English as well as her native Luo. She and her family were forced to flee the country when Otunnu was 8. She's since divided her time between Sudan, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. "Some of the things the families are going through, on a personal level, I understand some of it," she says.
Otunnu also has experience dealing with public health, and with bureaucracy. In 1986, she worked in a Sudanese refugee camp and, later, with Oxfam in England and Boston. In 1993, she graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in biology and women's studies. She worked on an infant mortality project in Hartford prior to moving to Vermont last year with her husband, a University of Vermont medical student, and their 4-year-old daughter.
The VISTA position was created by Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office, which estimates there are 800 African-born adults -- and about 1200 children -- in the area. Otunnu says the Mudasi-ganas are just one of several African refugee families in crisis in the Old North End. In the month she's been on the job, she's already passed out 150 business cards, and is fielding a variety of phone calls from both service providers and distressed refugees. "They need clothing, health care, dental care, and they need it taken care of yesterday," she says briskly.
VRRP's Sanders and other service providers agree that many of the Africans seem to have more trouble transitioning to American life than other groups. Sanders suggests that's partly because they're "not Westernized at all." American culture is vastly different from the ones they've left behind.
Culture shock can lead to culture clashes, especially in Burlington's Old North End. Mediator Brooke Hadwen, who directs Burlington's Community Support Program, says she's received numerous calls from Vermonters who don't know where else to turn with their concerns. Often she's talking with neighbors who feel violated when an African child plays with one of their children's toys without permission, or when the kids pee in the street. "Many of the little kids are used to urinating outside," she notes. "Here a lot of people are offended by that."
Hadwen has also taken several calls from Burlington's Code Enforcement Office, about Africans who cover their walls with fabric. "For them, it's a sign of wealth and happiness," she says. "Here, it's a fire hazard. You just can't do it to the extent that they do it."
Last summer, several African children were riding their bikes, darting dangerously in and out of traffic, Hadwen recalls. "I thought, Oh, my god, somebody's going to get squished here." She found an interpreter and talked to the families, a process that ended when one of the mothers stabbed the bike tires to keep the kids from riding. That outcome saddened Hadwen. Would it have gone differently if someone from within the community had approached them?
The opportunity to have such a person working with the city inspired CEDO to create Otunnu's position, says CEDO organizer Betsy Ruzansky. "We weren't just going to hire anyone," she says. "It felt like such a gift that she was not only so qualified but also interested in being a VISTA." Ruzansky adds, "She's received by the community much differently than I might be, and that's important." That's a diplomatic way of saying that Otunnu's accent and dark skin give her an immediate advantage in this work. Ruzan-sky -- like the vast majority of Vermonters -- is white.
Otunnu has lived much of her life in the United States, but she says people in Vermont still see her on the bus and ask her if she is a refugee. It doesn't matter how long she's been here -- she still sticks out. She's grown accustomed to that, but she muses that many African refugees must feel like they're under the spotlight. "It's like being completely naked," she says.
Not that Otunnu spends much time talking about race relations -- the conversations she has usually revolve around more immediate concerns. That's the case one morning when she drops by the basement of St. Joseph's School on Allen Street. Seven women from Somalia, Burundi and Togo have gathered for English classes and day care sponsored by the Visiting Nurses Association. Some of them wear colorful skirts and scarves, while others are dressed casually in sweats. Otunnu is clad in jeans and a CEDO sweatshirt, her amber dreads uncovered.
Otunnu draws pictures and plays with three toddlers while their mothers learn English. It looks like she's goofing off, but she's building relationships that will ultimately help her do her job, Otunnu explains. "It's really a good place for me to be because I can interact with them easily, get to know the kids and the parents."
During the morning check-in, one of the women confessed to being hungry, Otunnu relates. "I asked her if she had gone to the food shelf. She said 'No, it's canned food.' They want fresh food. They're not used to the cans. The food shelf," she continues, "is really willing to work with these people, but they need to know why the people don't go there."
After a break the teacher, a Bosnian native, invites Otunnu to address the class. She passes out some business cards, and speaks in a mixture of basic English and Swahili. "This is my number," she tells them. "So we can talk, and I see what I can do for you, whether it's food or doctor, anything. You call, and I can come to your house."
She broaches the subject of the food shelf. "Remember we were talking about food shelf?" she asks. "Almost no food in the house, you go to food shelf." The women nod. Otunnu looks around the table. "Anybody needs today?" she asks. No one responds. "Tomorrow?" she asks again, and one woman nods her head. "You need tomorrow? I'll come to your house."
Otunnu loves her job, she says afterwards. "You don't know if somebody's going to ask you for advice to write a grant or ask you to babysit for a little. It's great."
Otunnu can only do so much for Burlington's growing refugee population, and her job lasts a year. That's why CEDO has paired her with the Association of Africans Living in Vermont. The grassroots group is better able to identify day-to-day problems than official governmental agencies, and can connect newcomers with other Africans who have successfully navigated the transition to American life.
Founded in 1998, the 40-member group connects immigrants and refugees both to each other and to the wider Vermont community. Until now, AALV has been staffed entirely by volunteers, all of whom have full-time jobs. That's made organizational development difficult. Although the group exists specifically to connect Africans in Vermont to service providers, most of the latter have never heard of it.
Otunnu will spend most of her time at the AALV office, on Elmwood Avenue between North and Allen Streets. The large, ground-floor windows look out on the sidewalk, where Otunnu can see passing pedestrians, and across the street to the cemetery where Ethan Allen's wife is buried. Inside, the space is decorated simply with a map of Africa, and a sign bearing the group's logo, the letters AAL inside a giant "V."
The AALV moved from Shelburne Road to this more convenient location four months ago, but there's still no sign out front. "It costs money to have a sign," Otunnu notes. Thanks to CEDO, she's the new front desk person . . . that is, if there were a front desk.
CEDO hopes it can bolster the association by having Otunnu -- who earns a paltry $850 monthly stipend -- sit in the office and answer the phone. Then, if someone calls during business hours, there's a reasonable chance of being helped. CEDO also hopes to hire a staff person to support AALV.
In the meantime, Otunnu plans to stock the association's office with educational materials, and with forms to help people apply for everything from Catholic Charities aid to food stamps. And she hopes to get the computers up and running, to provide Internet access to Africans who can communicate with family back home. She notes that visitors will soon be able to send and receive faxes from the office, and make local phone calls for free. Otunnu wants the office to become a safe space where Africans of all nationalities will feel comfortable.
To announce the AALV's new, expanded services to the community, Otunnu is helping to plan an open house. Everyone in the community is invited to the grand opening, though Otunnu worries they'll have trouble fitting a large crowd into the small space.
First, though, they have to get the word out. Otunnu and Gicheru work on this one weekday morning. When a volunteer English as a Second Language teacher walks by the office, Otunnu cuts herself off mid-sentence and rushes to open the door.
"Hey, Dave!" she shouts as he passes. He greets her enthusiastically. She tells him she's holding office hours at the AALV today. "If you see some of your ladies," she tells him, "you can send them out."
"This is our grassroots way of doing things," Otunnu remarks with a laugh as she closes the door again. It seems simple, but the newly transplanted Africans and the communities in which they live desperately need these connections.
A few minutes later, a Somali Bantu family that neither Otunnu nor Gicheru recognizes walks down the sidewalk without stopping or looking up. Both women rush to the door, and open it to greet them.
The man and woman smile broadly at them, and they exchange a few words in Swahili. The fluent Gicheru does most of the talking. As the family walks away, they and Gicheru and Otunnu all say "Asante!"
It means "thank you."