Ahmed Museh, 22, isn’t sure what to do when he graduates from Winooski High School next month. He’s thinking college, then the Air Force. It’s been four years since Museh came to the United States from Kenya, where he spent his adolescence in a refugee camp. He hasn’t applied to college yet, and he doesn’t have the money.
Even if Museh scored a good financial aid package, he’d have to support himself. Part-time work as a dishwasher, cook or shipping clerk won’t pay more than $10 per hour. But at least Museh has more options than some of his friends, many of whom don’t have high school diplomas. He can hold his own with a welding torch.
This winter, Museh was one of 14 African refugees to enroll in a new workforce development program offered by the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV), a nonprofit headquartered in Burlington’s Old North End. Before next spring, the welding program will have provided 30 individuals with 80 hours of welding training and 40 hours of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. Observing a typical class underscores some of the challenges facing Vermont’s growing African community.
In fiscal year 2007, the federal government accepted about 50,000 refugees, a tiny fraction of the world’s 18 million. In Vermont, which typically receives about 150 refugees per year, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program in Colchester offers the newcomers case management, employment and ESL services for five years after stateside arrival. Africans compose the bulk of recent arrivals, and most of them have settled in the Burlington area. AALV, a community nonprofit founded more than seven years ago, now counts 1500-plus members from 29 African nations.
Having emigrated from refugee camps, AALV members are familiar with hardship. But a new life in Vermont isn’t exactly a piece of cake: Roughly half live below the federal poverty line. In the winter, food budgets shrink as work in local hotels tapers off. The average size of an AALV family is five or six people, but primary earners only make about $9 per hour.
The new welding program is a way to help African refugees secure more stable, better-paying employment. AALV Executive Director George Wright, 32, got the idea after observing a similar program in Georgia. Vermont’s version, Wright explains on a recent afternoon at Advanced Welding Institute in South Burlington, fuses ESL training with specific job skills.
AWI is housed in a nondescript building just off Williston Road. Interior walls are plastered with welding charts, a NASCAR poster and a red, white and blue sign that reads, “Welding America.” Today, sparks fly from behind a row of yellow curtains as Ahmed Museh and two other men practice simple soldering techniques. Jamie Mears, a goateed welding instructor wearing black jeans, looks on patiently.
Standing by the doorway in a collared shirt, George Wright explains that today’s trio is a representative cross-section of Vermont’s African community. One quiet fellow hails from Burundi, which contributed a third of Vermont’s refugee arrivals last year. Ahmed Museh is from Somalia, the most common African-refugee country of origin. And Sita Antoine, 57, came here from the second most common country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I say ‘democratic,’” Antoine, a balding man with a syrupy French accent and glasses, notes with a chuckle. “It’s not democratic.”
It’s hard to generalize about the type of African refugee who benefits from the welding program, according to AALV Program Specialist Naweza Muderhwa. The 26-year-old immigrated to Vermont from the Congo in 1996. Before landing her job, Muderhwa studied sociology and community development at the University of Vermont. Some African refugees don’t have sufficient educational credentials or English skills to qualify for high-paying jobs, she says; others are just unlucky.
Take Sita Antoine, who happens to be Muderhwa’s uncle. Antoine and his family arrived in Vermont eight years ago after fleeing a civil war. Prior to that, he worked as an immigration officer for the Congolese government and studied political science at a university, where he learned English from textbooks. In Vermont, none of that experience helped him snag employment, so Antoine took a job making furniture in Randolph. Now he works at Shelburne Plastics in South Burlington.
For a while, Antoine was taking morning ESL classes, but stopped when they got in the way of his work schedule. “The older you get, the harder it is to go back to school,” his niece observes. Also, college can be prohibitively pricey.
If it calls to mind familiar inequities, the welding program also illustrates a hopeful trend in workforce development. As Vermont’s refugee population expands, both AALV and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program are exploring new ways of connecting refugee workers with better employment — and committed employers.
Consider “New Farms for New Americans,” an AALV initiative launched earlier this year with the Intervale Center. Thanks to federal grant money, 27 Africans from Somalia, Burundi and the Congo are tilling three acres of land owned by the Winooski Valley Park District. They will sell produce to City Market, area farmers’ markets and a local salsa maker all summer and fall. The program, Wright explains, allows women to bring children to their job site, so they don’t have to pay for childcare out of meager wages.
Other initiatives are in the works. Pending an influx of state funds, AALV will begin a nursing-certification program this summer. Refugee Resettlement currently offers job-site ESL training at three local manufacturing plants and plans to extend the program to service-sector industries.
According to Wright, some local manufacturers, such as Rhino Foods and Lake Champlain Chocolates, have taken the lead when it comes to employing African refugees. Just last week, Magic Hat Brewing Company called AALV to discuss job opportunities for an expansion project. “Employers tell us that they’re always interested in former refugees because of the work ethic they bring,” says Judy Scott, director of VRRP. “For them, that outweighs difficulties with communication.”
Of course, there are still obstacles, linguistic and otherwise. Montpelier policy makers “overlook” Burlington’s African community, Wright says, and the general public sometimes stereotypes its members as “helpless individuals” who leach funds from the welfare system. Besides, even with some technical skills and ESL training, refugees aren’t guaranteed better-paying gigs.
That’s certainly true for the welding industry, reports Jamie Mears, the instructor on duty today at AWI. Experienced welders make more than $20 per hour, but only after years of training, he explains, and welders’ slang waylays even the sharpest native speakers. “They got a ways to go,” Mears admits of his African students. “I’m not trying to shoot ’em down, you know? But there’s a lot of welders out there.”
Assuming African refugees do move into more lucrative positions, says George Wright, the transition would “pay dividends” to everyone, not just the parties involved. Since Vermont has the second oldest population in the U.S., he points out, it will soon be providing more social services to the rapidly graying baby-boomer cohort. “How is the state going to pay for it? Well, you need to have a replacement work force.”
Indeed, Vermont’s refugee community could help the state weather the storm. Generally speaking, Wright says, the African refugees he interacts with are young, able-bodied and highly motivated. Plus, given the expense of moving away and a cultural emphasis on tight nuclear families, refugees such as Ahmed Museh will probably stick around to start careers — and families — in Vermont, rather than in large cities.
In the meantime, Congolese expat Sita Antoine is advising new arrivals to be realistic. Some refugees, he says, assume that by immigrating to a “rich” country, they will automatically acquire bling. So he has to remind them, “No, you must work! Don’t live beyond your income!” Antoine, who will report for work tonight at Shelburne Plastics, should know: He supports four children on $11 per hour.
Life in the United States is hard but peaceful, Antoine reflects, and, thanks in part to AALV, services for Vermont’s African-refugee community are much better than they used to be. “If someone can give you an orientation, it’s better to be oriented,” he says. That way, “You can avoid some craziness.”