BURLINGTON -- Refugees from war-torn countries who resettle in Vermont no longer have to fear armed militias, but life in the United States presents its own set of challenges. Getting a job, finding a place to live, learning English -- those are all difficult enough, and they're just the basics. How do refugees learn how Americans define and deal with domestic violence, drunk driving or child abuse?
Organizers from the Association of Africans Living in Vermont attempted to help African-born refugees grasp these and other legal and cultural concepts at a workshop at Burlington's City Hall last Saturday. Volunteers from the AALV partnered with area agencies to provide vital information, all of which was translated into French, Swahili and Mai-Mai.
Charlie Halstead, manager of the Burlington Housing Authority Family Site, explained his agency's interest in helping plan the event in a pre-workshop interview. "Basically," he said, "we're dealing with a community where people still have a lot of questions."
That community is composed of refugees from African nations such as Somalia, Congo and Sudan. Many of these newcomers arrived through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, which has resettled more than 700 African refugees in the Burlington area since 2000. It's impossible to know how many are still here, but the city's Community and Economic Development Office estimates there are approximately 2000 African-born immigrants and refugees in the Burlington area.
The VRRP provides its clients with intensive services immediately after their arrival, but there's a limit to how much the federally funded agency can do. The AALV and its partner organizations are trying to step in and facilitate the next step in what is often a difficult transition process.
Their efforts are meeting with mixed success. Prior to the workshop, for example, Halstead said he hoped to see one adult from every refugee household at the workshop. But just a dozen or so refugee adults made it to Contois for the day's first session, which was to have begun at 10 a.m. Organizers delayed for almost an hour before AALV president Jacob Bogre delivered his opening remarks.
Speaking to an audience in which the journalists, presenters and translators nearly outnumbered participants, Bogre outlined the day's theme. "How can we fit in this new culture and keep our African values and not do some mistake?" he asked.
He introduced John Salter and Robin LaRue, of the Department of Children and Family Services, who spoke about child abuse and neglect. Their presentation reflected the cultural differences in child-rearing practices that African refugees in particular must confront. Back at home, Salter implied, you can count on other adults to keep an eye on your kids, but expectations are different here.
"Parents should not assume that other adults should watch their children," Salter explained. "You wouldn't trust strangers with your money or your documents; don't expect others to watch your children."
Other speakers, such as Steve McQueen of the Winooski Police Department, explained that the police and the court system -- not community elders -- have the final word in domestic-violence situations. If a court orders an abusive husband to leave the house, he said, "elders cannot change that."
Participants also asked questions that revealed the extent of the educational task at hand. Through a translator, one woman asked Salter and LaRue to advise her on how to handle a problem she encounters often, when her daughter comes home from school, turns on the TV, and refuses to help with the chores. The woman reported that when she turns off the TV, her daughter cries and threatens to report her mother to the police.
The crowd laughed at this dilemma, and many nodded their heads, as if it were a common problem. Through school and their peers, refugee children learn how to manipulate the system, which can put their parents at a disadvantage. Salter's answer: "If your child calls and says you won't let her watch TV, I will not come to your house."
But if children are threatening to turn their parents in, the parents themselves are often reluctant to report problems. Before the workshop began, Burlington's Community Support Program Director Brooke Hadwen said privately that she recently dealt with an elderly white man who was taking advantage of a refugee family, coming into their home and taking suggestive photographs of their partially dressed children.
"They were just so polite and wouldn't kick him out of the house," she confided. When Hadwen learned of the situation, she told the family she'd have to report the man. She says they were worried for his safety. "They were like, 'He's not going to get hurt, is he?'"
The mother of the family had had bad experiences with uniformed officers. "She tells me this story of being stabbed by bayonets and being held down and being raped," Hadwen recalled. "Every story is like that. So it's very different stuff."
At least one participant expressed his concern that the information presented at Saturday's workshop isn't reaching most of the people in the Somali Bantu community. Hassan Nur, a Somali refugee who has been in the U.S. for two years, raised his hand after Salter and LaRue's presentation.
"The problem we have is that we are not really the same as other people," he said. He explained that the Somalis have lots of children and few financial resources. Parents are struggling to work and watch their kids. Many of them still don't understand the language, much less the local legal system and support networks. "When the kids are in trouble," he said, "who should they call?"
BHA's Halstead called the event "a great step in the right direction."
"All we can do is reach out," he said. "People are reaching back."