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Friendly Skies: A Chance Encounter With Afghan Refugees Arriving in Vermont

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James Buck (right) with an airline employee and Afghan refugees - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • James Buck (right) with an airline employee and Afghan refugees

James Buck has a knack for being in the right place at the right time — an important trait for a freelance photojournalist.

Last Thursday, Buck, a frequent Seven Days contributor, was at it again, this time as he returned home from a Florida vacation. As he boarded a flight to BTV in Charlotte, N.C., something caught his eye: a family of two adults and five children carrying bags emblazoned with IOM, aka International Organization for Migration.

"Refugees who are being resettled are always carrying these white IOM bags," said Buck, who has documented humanitarian aid missions around the world, including on recent trips to Haiti, India and Turkey.

The flight crew had difficulty communicating with the adults, who knew no English. So Buck, who knows a little Arabic, jumped in and offered to help translate for the refugees, who turned out to be Afghan. They spoke Pashto, a different language that shares some words. The crew reseated Buck next to the family, and they took up a stilted but fruitful back-and-forth, intermittently using an app to translate. Buck learned that they had come from eastern Afghanistan by way of El Paso, Texas.

"I just used my tool kit: Hey, let's talk to the kids, look at some pictures, try on my sunglasses," Buck said. "We have no language in common ... But I just tried the most basic, calming and kind gestures: thumbs up, being disarming, being friendly."

Once on the ground in Burlington, the family reunited with acquaintances who had also fled Afghanistan. A translator and rep from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program were also there to help. The new arrivals were among the first of dozens of Afghan refugees expected to resettle in Vermont.

Buck tweeted about his chance encounter and gave an interview to a local TV station. All the subsequent feedback was extremely positive, Buck said.

"There was so much heartfelt outpouring of support for these people," he said. "It showed what Vermonters are feeling about wanting to welcome these people into our communities. So that felt really good."

Two days later, his new friends from the flight contacted him over Facebook Messenger. They plan to stay in touch.