- Oliver Parini
Name: Thato Ratsebe
Town: Essex Junction
Job: Assistant director & programs manager at the Association of Africans Living in Vermont
Thato Ratsebe believes that empowerment is the key to self-sufficiency. As a staffer at the nonprofit Association of Africans Living in Vermont, she's often called on to assist refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers in their new lives in the Green Mountain State. For instance, she might help clients make a phone call to the gas company. But the next time those clients have a similar problem, she'll stand beside them while they make the call.
"Sometimes it's about helping to build confidence," Ratsebe said. "People just need help and support."
Born and raised in Botswana, Ratsebe worked briefly at a fast-food restaurant after completing her high school education. In 1999, when the country's first private radio station opened, she took a leap of faith, auditioned to be a program host and got her own four-hour slot every Sunday.
Ratsebe started off by playing gospel music and inviting local artists to be on her show. As HIV ran rampant in the country, she found herself interviewing health department officials. Ratsebe's manager nominated her to be part of a team putting together a radio serial drama in Johannesburg, South Africa. There she met Vermonter Bill Ryerson, who, with his wife, Leta Finch, sponsored her to seek higher education in the U.S.
"I am the way I am today because of my family and strangers who looked at me and saw the potential in me that I didn't know I have," she said.
In 2001, Ratsebe enrolled at the Community College of Vermont. Two years later, she transferred to Saint Michael's College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communications, and a master's degree in administration and management.
Disillusioned with her original career choice — "The cable networks distorted my theology on journalism," Ratsebe said — she turned instead to human services, joining AALV in 2011.
SEVEN DAYS: You wear many hats at work. What's your routine like?
THATO RATSEBE: My primary role is to directly supervise the staff, oversee the interpretation services and ensure we are meeting our deliverables. As in any nonprofit, titles don't mean anything, because you end up doing everything.
Sometimes I go to a client's home because they need someone to talk to their children and have them understand that it's important that they follow the rules of [the] house. I deal with insurance companies because a client had an accident. It could be driving clients to appointments because women might feel a little better being taken to a doctor's appointment by another woman.
SD: What's the biggest misconception people have about refugees?
TR: That refugees come here looking to take somebody's benefits. Refugees come here looking for a safer place to live, to work hard to help their families have a better life, to have normalcy in their life and to raise their children in the best way possible. They don't come here looking to get things for free.
Of course, in the initial stage of someone coming here, they may need assistance. They are in a new system. Some of these people went to a refugee camp when they [were young]. Some were born there. They didn't choose to be in a refugee camp. They were displaced because of the atrocities in the world. When they come here, it's really to look for better opportunities.
SD: How is the current political climate affecting your clients?
TR: What people heard from the now-president — that you're not welcomed — they feel uncomfortable. We had people trying to figure out if they are safe; are they going to be sent back home? That was really unsettling and heartbreaking for me. I have a good comprehension of what clients have to deal with in their everyday living, and to add one more anxiety, it was heartbreaking.
SD: What's the biggest barrier your clients face?
TR: Language is the biggest barrier for employment. When you have limited English, there's only so much you can do. You can work in a factory, or you can be a housekeeper. I don't think most people come here with the idea that that's their dream job. They did it for survival. That also takes away time they could have [used] to go to English class to improve their ability to speak better English and get better jobs.
You have another group of people who are doctors and nurses. Because they're in a regulated field, they are learning to navigate the system. The more employers can acquire international talent and realize that someone may just need to brush up on something, the better the refugee and immigrant community can find employment.
SD: What keeps you centered amid the challenges of your job?
TR: I try to create downtime. What balances me is my spiritual life. I'm a Christian, and I go to church. On Wednesday, we have Bible study. I make time to pray. I draw my strength from my faith, from the hope that my faith emphasizes.
SD: What's the latest programming you're working on?
TR: I'm recruiting for outreach workers [to work on a grant-funded project to aid survivors of sexual assault]. That's a very sensitive topic. We have to ensure that we have the right people. Also, [they have to] feel comfortable, because we're dealing with people who have been sexually abused in the refugee camps and maybe here [in Vermont].
Hiring people for us is not that hard. People already have expressed interest in being a part of what we do. And we try to hire people that reflect the community, because then it becomes easier to work with clients. The people who came through the very same process of being resettled here — they understand [the problems] better than anyone else.