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The State's Most Recent Refugees Get a Boost

Local Matters


Published January 25, 2006 at 2:04 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- Armed conflicts and poverty throughout the African continent have caused millions of Africans to flee their homes in recent years. Thanks mainly to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, some of them have relocated to the Green Mountain State.

VRRP has brought more than 5000 refugees to Vermont in the past 26 years, and since 2000, most of them have come from Africa. Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office estimates that roughly 2000 African-born immigrants and refugees now live in the Burlington area.

In December, Seven Days reported on the difficulties facing this growing population, and on efforts by CEDO and other agencies and organizations to address their unique needs ("Africans, Unite!" December 14). Much has happened since then, says Lajiri Van Ness-Otunnu, an AmeriCorps-VISTA volunteer who works with the area's African-born residents.

CEDO hired Otunnu -- a Uganda native who speaks English, Luo and some Swahili -- last October. Though she's officially under the aegis of CEDO, Otunnu spends much of her time working to strengthen the nonprofit Association of Africans Living in Vermont. The volunteer-run organization connects both immigrants and refugees to educational opportunities, social services and, perhaps most importantly, to each other.

Otunnu reports that the AALV open house she held at the end of December was a success; 150 people showed up, a quarter of them neighbors and other Vermonters curious to learn about the organization. Many of them signed up to volunteer.

The article also generated phone calls and donations. One couple offered to make a sign for the AALV office; several professors and college administrators called to see how they could help; and a woman recently dropped off 75 brand-new winter coats for African children in need. Otunnu notes that a local pastor and his wife bought Christmas presents for the Mudasiganas, the family featured in the article. And the family's landlord has fixed their heating system.

In the last month, Otunnu also secured a $20,000 Health Department grant for the AALV to fund a part-time health outreach worker, and organized a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration with VRRP and the Imani Health Institute that drew 65 people. Traffic at the AALV office has increased "enormously," she says.

But the most significant development is that Otunnu is no longer the city's only full-time liaison to the African-born population. On January 3, Hussein Liban started work as a case manager for a coalition of agencies including the Burlington and Winooski Housing Authorities. He also spends Monday afternoons and Wednesday mornings in the AALV office.

Liban, 26, was born in Somalia. His story echoes that of many other new African residents in Vermont. His parents disappeared in 1991, shortly after the country was engulfed in civil war, leaving Liban, his two sisters and his brother to fend for themselves. "We don't know where they are," he says of his parents. "I hope they are alive."

He and his siblings spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to Vermont in 2004. Liban, who speaks Somalian, Maay-Maay and Swahili, also learned English in the camp. He left once, to attend a U.N.-sponsored college, but returned after a year to become a social worker among the refugees. He connected them to medical services and helped them navigate the system to find food and aid. That's pretty much what he'll be doing here.

Charlie Halsted, Liban's supervisor at BHA, says the young man will help address an urgent need. There are 42 African families in BHA units. Of the 60 families at Franklin Square, 10 are Somali Bantu, two are from Burundi. Halstead points out that they make up 20 percent of the households, but an even higher percentage of the community itself, since many families have multiple children.

"I could not have even the most basic of conversations with these people," says Halsted.

Liban, on the other hand, seems to know them all. As the two knocked on doors in Franklin Square one recent afternoon, all of the African residents greeted Liban warmly.

Halsted notes that having him on board will be a big help, and one that came not a moment too soon. Another 100 African refugees are expected to arrive in Vermont this year.