Visiting the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program

Visiting the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program

In Professor Eleanor D’Aponte’s AP558 Global Issues in Design seminar, students experience global environmental, social, and educational issues via selected readings, films, field trips, guest speakers and service to community. Seeing the work of local entrepreneurs and educators within the context of global concerns, the course inspires students to think broadly in their own design work. Students report and reflect on class events via individual journals, as well a series of class blog entries. Graduate student Sam Waite considers the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program as today’s guest blogger.

There are so many refugee crises currently ongoing around the world that it is impossible to even begin to list them all. Human rights abuse and systemic oppression are rampant in many parts of the world, and millions of people around the world have been forced to flee their homes in fear for the safety of themselves and their families. Currently there is a refugee crisis rising throughout Europe with an estimated 700,000 new refugees this year alone. The current surge of refugees is people fleeing to Europe away from the violence in-­‐and-­‐around Syria and other places in the Middle East. This is the most notable current crises, but for every article and media segment about it, there are several other conflicts that are not reported on. The United States has long been a leader in disaster relief and human rights response around the world, at both a private level and a government level. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees; we are a place that other people should be able to look for help.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) is a leading organization trying to provide aid and assistance for people forced to flee their home for any reason. The USCRI helps to resettle international refugees to the United States, and helps them begin setting up a new life once they have gotten here. Vermont has a local field office for this organization that facilitates and organizes all resettling people in Vermont called the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, or VRRP for short.

Over the last 30 years, the VRRP has helped facilitate the receiving end of the refugee process and resettled over 6,500 refugees to areas in Vermont. That may not seem to compare to the 220,000 refugees that Germany has received this year, but it speaks to some underlying problem in how we handle refugees on a global level. The refugees entering Europe are fleeing across land and border, and of the 700,000 entering Europe, virtually none of them are actively in the resettlement process; they are just trying to reach safety. Annually only about 160,000 refugees get resettled. Resettlement is an official process that requires refugees to apply to a country and be approved for their official refugee status. Resettlement is the end of the refugee process taking about 1000 days. The preferable option for resettlement is resettlement within the country of origin, but many refugees are unable to go home and if they are able can end up being resettled anywhere in the world. Most refugees spend decades with their families inside temporary refugee camps living destitute and impoverished lives while they try and find a way to rebuild their lives. Less than 1% of refugees reach the resettlement stage of the refugee process.

During our visit to the VRRP office, it became clear that while resettlement was the major goal of a refugee, life is not easy for people who are forced to adapt to life in a completely new culture and environment. On average, people who are resettled in Vermont have been refugees for 20 years. The VRRP has helped over 1,700 Bosnian Muslims, over 1,400 Bhutanese exiles, and about 1,000 African fleeing various violent conflicts in Central Africa. For the VRRP, the resettlement process begins when they get 10 days of notice before they receive a new family of refugees. The VRRP will have to meet the incoming refugees at the airport and be ready to provide accommodations for these families. They need to find housing and some general household furnishings and clothing for the refugees when they arrive, but much of the work cannot be done until the refugees have arrived. Housing cannot be prepared until the day of arrival. There are so many potential problems that can change for refugees during the resettlement process and many are unlucky enough to fail. These refugees have a 30-­‐day window following their application approval to go through the resettlement process, and most of them are arriving with nothing besides themselves, their families, and the clothes on their backs. If anything goes wrong during that window they can become ineligible for resettlement and their application is cancelled. Because of this the VRRP does not have a guarantee that a new family will arrive until the day of arrival.

Once the refugees have arrived, the VRRP introduces them to many of the concepts of American life that could be unfamiliar, and teach them the basics of how to survive. The VRRP also helps them establish the fundamentals to survive. Refugees are given a monthly stipend of federal aid, about 925$ per person every month. With this initial money VRRP helps refugees sign leases with accommodating landlords, buy groceries, and all of the other necessities that people need to survive. The VRRP also provides ongoing assistance to these families, helping them access educational tools so people can learn English, or helping them find employment. However, after 8 months this federal cash assistance disappears and refugees are expected to be self-­‐sustainable. This resettlement process is incredibly tumultuous. Compared to life fleeing or in a refugee camp it is an improvement, but it is by no means an easy transition. These people still have years of official processes to undergo. After their first year in the United States, refugees can apply for permanent residency and if they are approved for a green card they are officially no longer a refugee in the eyes of the government. Refugees are supposed to apply for citizenship after they have been in residence for more than five years. If they have not applied for citizenship after seven years then the rest of the federal benefits they have been receiving disappear.

However, these people are acclimating and adjusting to life in Vermont. Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design has been working with the Bhutanese refugees resettled by VRRP to learn to grow rice along the Winooski River near Burlington, Vermont. These Bhutanese are from an area of the world where rice is the backbone of their traditional cuisine and diet, and many of these refugees have been farming rice in South-­‐East Asia for generations. Falk and these Bhutanese people were able to take advantage of the skills that these refugees had and were able to repurpose them in an extremely innovative, productive, and simple way. These people are now locally producing for the consumption demand of their own Bhutanese community, supporting themselves and the local economy, but they are innovating. Growing rice in Vermont seems almost laughable at first glance, but the truth is that it’s working regardless of the fact that this is not the typical environment for rice cultivation. The VRRP also does what it can to help the refugees over a longer timeline. Many of the employees who work at the VRRP are former refugees that the VRRP originally helped resettled, and these people just want to help other refugees receive the same chance that they were given.

While I sit here writing in Northfield, Vermont, it seems criminally easy to be ignorant of so many of the injustices in today’s world. Human rights violations and oppression occurs daily, and in our little corner of the world, we have so many ‘problems’ that seem so intimidating and stress-­‐inducing, that our lives seem so hard and so complicated. In the midst of thesis writing or job hunting or a design project we can get so swept up in the rigors of our own created reality that these injustices are so far from home, and they fade into the background. It seems wrong that it is so easy, but being honest it is. However, these crises around are connected to us in Vermont and there is always more we can do to help people who are suffering, regardless of where they are in the world. There was a time in America where everybody took care of their neighbors, in this new global world we have a large scale of neighborhood and we have a human responsibility to help.