Refugees living in Vt. reflect on Syrian crisis

Not far from busy downtown Burlington, Vt., crops wave in the breeze on urban farmland. A small patch of land belonging to the Winooski Valley Park District is now a rice paddy. “Being able to plant rice here was just amazing,” said Deo Pokhrel, a Bhutanese refugee who acted as an interpreter, aiding New England Cable News in interviewing other refugees.

Bhutan borders China and India. There, Arjun Gurung, Ganesh Dahl, Davi Subedi, Ashok Dahal, and Saran Chhetri would grow rice, a staple of their diet consumed at meals throughout the day. The men, who now live in the Burlington area, told NECN they were driven from their homeland amid persecution and inter-ethnic violence in the early 1990s. They were forced to endure a squalid refugee camp in Nepal for more than 15 years, they said, before settling in Vermont about five years ago.

“People die from starvation there in a refugee camp, and you see people killing each other for money and things like that,” Pokhrel said, interpreting the men’s answers to NECN’s questions about a typical day in the camp. “There would not be a good roof on the houses, and dirt for the floor where they’d sleep. And so when it rains, everything would get wet.”

The farmers get assistance from the non-profit AALV, which runs a program called New Farms for New Americans. The group started more than seven years ago, primarily to serve Africans living in Vermont. It now seeks to help new Americans from all countries gain independence through a wide range of integration services, according to its website.

The Bhutanese refugees told NECN they are mindful of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria. The United Nations has reported more than 2-million Syrians are now in neighboring countries after fleeing fighting. Many more refugees likely never registered with the UN, and millions of others are believed to have been displaced within their country. “It’s a bad life,” Pokhrel said, interpreting Ashok Dahal’s words. “He knows about the refugee life and he never wants anyone to go through that same situation again.”

“It’s very, very sad,” Jean-Marie Mujakaz said of the Syrian crisis.

Mujakaz said he came to Vermont in the 1990s from Burundi, the east African nation that has seen genocide and civil war. He said he now works in Vermont as a medical care provider for other new Americans.

Mujakaz also acted as an interpreter, helping NECN ask questions of François Gasaba. He is a farmer originally from Burundi who has benefitted from New Farms for New Americans by working to develop an agricultural enterprise in Burlington, raising food for himself and selling to area markets. “When he goes to bed, he doesn’t worry about anything else,” Mujakaz said, interpreting Gasaba’s words. “He says he’s in a safe place, but it’s sad to see what he saw on the TV [from Syria] where people are dying.”

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger toured the New Farms for New Americans fields Friday. Weinberger praised the refugees’ hard work, their journeys, and noted how it is a special trait of Vermonters and the United States to be eager in trying to help others heal and get re-established.

“The stories you hear [of refugees’ pasts] are shocking and so different than the experience most of us are lucky to have here in Vermont,” the democrat said. “I think it’s something we can be proud of as a city, that we have this decades-long commitment to playing a role. I think it’s something that requires ongoing work to make sure we do it well; that we serve the newcomers well and that there isn’t great disruption to the city by playing that role.”

New Farms for New Americans hopes to plant seeds of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship, helping independence take root in Vermont’s refugee community every day. “Here, they love it very much,” Pokhrel said, smiling. “Having this rice here makes them feel a bit like they are back in Bhutan.”

According to the U.S. State Dept., the country admitted more than 58,000 refugees in 2012, providing resettlement agencies a one-time sum of $1,875 per refugee to defray costs during their first few months. Welcoming refugees into the U.S. “reflects our own tradition as a nation of immigrants and refugees,” the State Dept. wrote in an online fact sheet. “It is an important, enduring and ongoing expression of our commitment to international humanitarian principles.”

The State Dept. website also cites the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which says there are 15.4-million refugees in the world. The vast difference between the numbers of refugees admitted to new nations and the number of worldwide refugees reflects what the State Dept. calls “resettlement: the solution for only a few.”

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