Mike Yantachka | Contributor
In the aftermath of a contentious national election that raised strong feelings regarding immigrants, minorities and religion, there continues to be significant opposition to the prospect of Rutland becoming a haven for Syrian refugee families. The images of people desperate to escape from the Syrian civil war and ISIL persecution landing on the shores of Greece in fragile boats, as well as the reports of the thousands that drown trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, are part of the contemporary news cycle. Once they reach asylum in the first country of their destination, they are relegated to refugee camps where they wait with hope to be relocated to a more permanent location through the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). As generally aware of this situation as we might be, we may not be familiar with the subsequent process that leads to resettlement.
A week after the election, on November 15, more than 60 people from Charlotte and surrounding communities gathered at the Charlotte Senior Center to hear a presentation by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) and the accounts of refugees who are now new Vermonters. The idea behind the forum, organized by Charlotte Representative Mike Yantachka with the help of VRRP, was to increase public knowledge of the refugee experience: what caused them to become refugees, what process did they have to go through to enter the U.S., what challenges they face when they arrive and what their obligations are now that they are here.
According to the UNHCR there are currently 65.3 million refugees worldwide. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. Between 2013 and 2015, according to the State Department, about 70,000 refugees per year were admitted to the United States. President Obama stated that 85,000 would be admitted in 2016 and another 100,000 in 2017. With the recent election, the latter number may change.
VRRP representatives Kristen Rengo and Sophia Kimball introduced the program at the Senior Center with two videos featuring first person accounts of refugees who resettled in Vermont from Somalia, Bhutan and Bosnia. Before entering the U.S. refugees undergo an intensive screening process by multiple agencies, including the FBI, Department of Defense, National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security and the State Department. According to VRRP, this vetting process takes, on average, 1,000 days to complete. Prior to arrival, refugees also undergo medical screenings for both communicable diseases and mental disorders. Once they are accepted, they are assigned to one of nine resettlement agencies that are affiliated with 250 offices spread out over 49 states. Vermont was designated a refugee resettlement center in 1980.
Refugees receive assistance, including housing, mentoring and a stipend for six months after they arrive in the U.S. The housing is provided at market rates, and it is up to the refugees to support themselves after six months. This means that, to afford housing in Vermont, it is often necessary for large family groups to occupy rental housing. VRRP works with landlords to make these arrangements work and with employers who can provide jobs.
The Senior Center audience also heard from Yvonne Nigena from Burundi who currently lives in Burlington and from Puspa Luitel from Bhutan who is a Charlotte resident and serves on the town Planning Commission. Yvonne described her family’s flight from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and their stay in Tanzanian refugee camps, where she was born, before being granted asylum in the U.S. She attended Burlington High School along with refugees from many other countries. She said that their different customs and clothing set them apart, sometimes uncomfortably, from the other kids.
One thing that Yvonne is really passionate about is dance, and she plays a strong leadership role in keeping the art of traditional dance alive. She also announced that her dance group would be performing at the Vermont International Festival December 2 through 4 in Essex Junction. After graduating from BHS she attended Community College of Vermont and will start at Castleton University in January.
Puspa Luitel spoke of the expulsion from Bhutan in the 1990s of ethnic Nepalis, who were stripped of their citizenship. After fleeing to Nepal, Puspa attended school in the refugee camp up to 10th grade and went to India for 11th and 12th grades. In India Puspa completed four years of a five-year law program. Then his family applied for resettlement in the U.S. and came to Vermont in 2008. He resumed his undergraduate studies at Champlain College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2014, he has graduated from Vermont Law School and is very interested in practicing law in Vermont. Through the affordable housing program he had the opportunity to purchase a home in Charlotte where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is active in advocating for the refugee community and received an appreciation award from the City of Winooski in recognition of his outstanding service to the community. Puspa serves on the Planning Commission as a way to give back to his Charlotte community.
More information about the Refugee Resettlement Program can be found at refugees.org/Vermont and at embracerefugees.org.