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Out Of Africa... and Into Vermont 

Refugees and local activists make cross-continental connections

Published April 4, 2007 at 2:21 p.m.

  • Andy Duback

It's hard to identify two places on the planet more different from each other than Vermont and sub-Saharan Africa. Sure, their climates contrast radically, but there are also polarities of race, wealth and technology.

Despite an influx of black, brown and yellow immigrants in recent years, skin color in Vermont remains almost monochromatically pale. And, while residents of the state's trailer parks and slummy apartments hardly qualify as well off in the American context, most Vermonters do enjoy living standards that most Africans would regard as impossibly luxurious.

Even so, black Africa looms larger and larger in the consciousness and the daily lives of many whites in Burlington and beyond. "I know literally hundreds and hundreds of people in Vermont whose lives have been touched by the Sudanese," says Robert Lair, an adjunct professor at St. Michael's College and the founder of a Colchester-based nationwide organization that plans to build 20 secondary schools in Sudan.

The "Lost Boys" who fled civil war in southern Sudan compose the best-known group of African refugees to have settled in the state. They were the first arrivals, making unlikely journeys to Vermont from squalid camps in Kenya beginning in 2001. But the Sudanese, whose local presence is now being augmented by a wave of immigration from within the U.S., are only one of several sets of Africans who have taken up residence in Vermont.

Somali women in kaleidoscopically patterned wrappas or colorless hijabs have become an everyday sight in the Old North End. Scores of African kids now attend the Wheeler and Barnes schools in the same neighborhood, where Shea butter soap and fufu flour can be purchased at grocery stores opened by Somalis and Congolese. Displaced citizens of Sudan, Burundi and Liberia frequent suburban shopping malls. And the Vermont Frost Heaves' championship basketball season was made possible in part by Issa Konare, a Senegalese who was recruited not in his native country but at UVM's Patrick Gym.

The presence today of some 1500 Africans in the Burlington area is only the most prominent point of intersection between Vermont and Africa. A growing number of young Vermonters are traveling to Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and other sub-Saharan countries on service-learning trips sponsored by St. Michael's College and other local academic institutions. In addition, Africa-focused programs at churches and in elementary schools around the state are introducing Vermonters to the cultures and histories of countries that are at once horrifyingly poor and enviably rich.

Vermont's indigenous tradition of tolerance, together with the cosmopolitan outlook cultivated by former flatlanders, has primed the state to become a safe harbor for Africans cut adrift from their homelands.

A subculture of Africanists has been part of the Vermont scene for many years. Peace Corps veterans who volunteered in Kenya, Benin, Lesotho and other sub-Saharan lands have long composed an informal network that also includes visiting scholars and American specialists in Africa who teach at the University of Vermont.

Jeh Kulu, a multiracial troupe that pounds out West African drum rhythms, was an early element in the globalization of Vermont. Formed in 1993, the group has had "a big impact in Burlington, especially among students," notes Rob Gordon, a Namibian who teaches anthropology at UVM. In addition to staging well-attended performances, the drummers and dancers have conducted workshops at several schools.

The tipping point was the coming of the Sudanese, who were soon followed by even larger numbers of Somali Bantus. As Lair of St. Mike's observes, African Vermonters are now interwoven in the social fabric of Chittenden County. Although many arrived speaking little or no English and were unfamiliar with other basic aspects of life in Vermont, the newcomers and the service workers who help them acclimate to their new home say that, in general, they've received a warm welcome.

"From all I'm hearing so far, Vermont is a friendly place that doesn't make people feel afraid," says Jacob Bogre, president of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont. The 4-year-old group, which assists with settlement and language issues, includes between 1500 and 2000 members from 29 African countries, says Bogre, a Congolese. Most live in or around Burlington or in the White River Junction or Brattleboro areas.

Many have found jobs or started businesses. Bogre, for example, works in UVM's Office of Animal Care. "We have clients who are highly educated and quickly become employed," notes Judy Scott, community services coordinator for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

Others have a much harder time entering the work force, Scott adds. "The majority of Africans settling here have been warehoused in refugee camps for 10 to 15 years, and many never had the chance to read or write their own language," she says. "Illiteracy is a very difficult barrier to overcome in the job market."

But even among the less-educated refugees, some young Africans are establishing social and economic niches where they say they feel comfortable. Ahmed Omar works about 40 hours a week at the Brixton Halal Market on North Street in Burlington while studying for a nursing degree at the Community College of Vermont.

He loves his adopted state.

"It's my favorite place," Omar, 19, says with a toothy smile. "I feel accepted here. Everyone here is my brother," he declares, noting that he has "lots of white friends."

Omar's English is almost indistinguishable from that of a native-born American, though he came to Vermont from a Somali refugee camp in Kenya only two years ago. He attributes his fluency to "the good schools in Burlington."

This sense of security and possibility is also affirmed by Atem Deng, one of the Lost Boys. "This is the best place for me," says Deng, 25, who emigrated to Vermont six years ago. "We feel OK to go anywhere. We go to night clubs here. In other states, Sudanese say it's a bad idea to go to night clubs."

Deng says the quality of public education in Vermont is another attraction for African refugees. He notes that Vermont is one of the few states in the country that permit students older than 18 to enroll in high school. That's the biggest draw for young Sudanese adults who are moving to Vermont from other states, Deng explains.

The picture isn't perfect - racism does scar some Africans' experience of living in Vermont. "I can't deny it exists here," Deng says, recalling that police officers have pulled him over several times for license checks. "Do they do that with other kinds of drivers?" he asks.

African students may also be targets of racist abuse in Burlington and Winooski schools, says Adrie Kusserow, an anthropology professor at St. Michael's. Kusserow, who assigns students to tutor Africans at local high schools, says, "I'm amazed how many of my students have reported back about hearing racial slurs."

That said, Vermont has proved to be "a remarkably welcoming community" for refugees, says Scott, a coordinator for the resettlement program. More than 200 local residents have volunteered to help the Sudanese, Somalis and other African newcomers, she notes.

"There's a very different picture of refugee resettlement in other places," Scott says.

She cites the case of a Somali man who moved to Vermont from Arizona last November. This refugee, who had never experienced temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, understood that he was coming to one of the coldest places in the U.S. "He said he wanted to be in Vermont anyway because in the four months he lived in Arizona, a white person never entered his family's home," Scott recounts. "He said he didn't want his children to live that way, and he knew they wouldn't have to in Vermont."

Mike Sheridan, a former Peace Corpsman who served in Kenya, offers an anthropological take on Vermont's open-heartedness. "The state's rural ethic of community interdependence, of helping out, has been transferred to this refugee population," observes Sheridan, who teaches anthropology at Middlebury College. "Vermonters used to build barns for one another. Now they build cribs for the babies of refugees."

Middlebury doesn't currently run student service trips to African countries, but it recently sponsored a genocide convocation that focused on Rwanda and Sudan's Darfur region. And more than a thousand Vermonters turned out last month for a talk on the Middlebury campus by Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life inspiration for the heroic protagonist in the film Hotel Rwanda.

Service stints in Africa are back in vogue among American students, Sheridan notes. "They're starting to swing toward Africa after a five-year swing away from it," he says. "In the years after 9/11, more kids were going to London or European venues that their parents thought of as nice and safe."

Africa's image as a hip destination has been burnished by celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who have joined longtime antipoverty campaigner Bono in focusing on wretchedly poor countries such as Malawi. "It's cool to go to Africa now," Sheridan says.

That raises the question of whether some student service trips represent a form of "poverty tourism," points out Gordon, UVM's Namibian anthropologist. "Are they going to make themselves feel good by being with poor Africans for a few weeks?" Gordon asks. "I don't know. I hope not."

Whatever the motivations may be, Gordon adds, interest in Africa is growing rapidly at UVM - to the point where the university may soon establish a major in African Studies. One group of students has started a Swahili language club, Gordon says, and scores more are active in the movement to stop the genocide in Darfur. There's also a campus chapter of the New Sudan Education Initiative, the school-building project that Lair launched at St. Michael's two years ago.

The Catholic college in Colchester has developed a specialty in Africa service programs. "They're a big presence on campus," says political scientist Patricia Siplon, who will soon lead her fourth student trip to the Ilula Orphan Center in Tanzania. "Students do fundraising for these trips, so there's a lot of Africa-oriented activities here."

Groups of St. Mike's undergraduates have also gone to Ghana, Uganda and Sudan, with individual students attending universities in South Africa for study-abroad semesters.

Ashley George, a 2005 graduate of St. Michael's, worked in refugee camps on the Uganda-Sudan border when she was a senior with Robert Fleming, a former professor and tennis coach at the college. Fleming wound up staying in Uganda after receiving custody of a baby born to a Ugandan woman who was homeless and mentally ill. He then established Malayaka House, an orphanage named for his daughter, in the city of Entebbe; George regularly returns as a volunteer.

George is helping plan a service trip that will bring St. Mike's students to Malayaka House in May. "I'm always really eager to go back there," says George, who works part-time with the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington. "Those are passionate people, friendly, easygoing and many of them in situations no human being should be in."

Activists such as George exemplify the degree of involvement to which Vermonters should aspire, suggests Mashobane Moruthane, a South African immigrant who teaches at the Waldorf School in Shelburne. "Vermonters need to go to the next level and actually go to Africa," says Moruthane, who recently organized an Africa Night in Shelburne's town gym that drew an audience of 200. "Interest is just interest. The question that has to be addressed is, What are you going to do with your interest?"

Siplon, the St. Mike's political scientist, takes a similar view. "There's a second layer of challenge that needs to be met," she says. "The connections between Vermont and Africa have to become less tied to institutions, with people taking action on their own. The more that happens, the more the connections become sustainable."

Lair, an adjunct professor of religious studies at St. Michael's, is among the Vermonters who have already personalized their interest in Africa. Five years ago, he notes, "I knew nothing about East Africa. Now, all that I do is work on Sudan."

Lair and Abraham Awolich, the Sudanese co-director of the New Sudan Education Initiative, have given presentations about the project to church and school groups all over the state. Along with a few Vermont volunteers and others in NESEI's 16 state chapters, the organizers are trying to raise $20 million to build schools in southern Sudan, a vast area that is finally experiencing peace after 25 years of civil war.

School construction was chosen as the organization's focus because the Sudanese Lair met in refugee camps in 2003 "kept telling us that education, education, education was the best way to help them," he recounts.

Lair and his wife Kusserow, along with their two young children, have undergone a transformation as a result of meeting African refugees in Vermont, he says. "It's completely revolutionized our lives. It's made our world so much bigger. This is the awareness and involvement that we want our children to grow up with."

Related stories this week:

Radio Africa: A new radio show reaches out to new Vermonters

by Cathy Resmer

Congolese Expats Accuse Area Police of Discrimination

by Mike Ives

From the archives:

Workshop Attempts to Help African Refugees Adjust to U.S. Rules and Regs (8/9/06)

By Cathy Resmer

The State's Most Recent Refugees Get a Boost (1/25/06)

By Cathy Resmer

Africans, Unite: Vermont opens its doors to refugees. Now what? (12/14/05)

By Cathy Resmer

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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