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Stories from Local Refugees and Asylum Seekers

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no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

— from “Home,” by Warsan Shire, Somali poet

The poem “Home” opened an Oct. 19 event at the Waterbury Public Library, “Bridging Continents: The Life and Experiences of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Central Vermont.” This event was part of a series called “Stories: Our Sameness/Our Differences,” and its purpose was to start conversations among people in order to find points of connection through storytelling.

Hosted by the Central Vermont Refugee Action Network and made possible by grant funding, the event featured local speakers telling the stories of their lived experiences as refugees or asylum seekers. 

One speaker, Eltayeb Awadalla from Sudan, came to Vermont as a refugee by way of Chad, Libya, Egypt, and Romania. The other speaker, a young woman who requested that her name not be used for this article, came as an asylum seeker by way of Ecuador on her way to Canada.

Awadalla shared two instances of racism he experienced, one involving a three-year-old boy and one involving a 70-year-old woman. He shared these stories in an effort to show that he has experienced racism on a regular basis as a result of perceived stereotypes. Despite these interactions, he still states that the “most nice people on the Earth are here in Vermont.” Since coming here in 2013, he has worked several different jobs and attended a local university. Because he became a U.S. citizen in 2018, he was able to get a bank loan and start his own business, MobiTech, located on Main Street in Montpelier. 

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The young woman has a different story. When her family came to Vermont, they did not have enough money for an apartment or for an attorney to help them navigate the asylum process. Because of federal regulations, asylum seekers do not have work authorization. Obtaining authorization can take 6 to 12 months, and during that time they were unable to work because they did not have social security numbers. In 2020, she was able to get a work permit and now attends CCV and wants to become an immigration lawyer in order to help other people in similar positions as her family. 

While both of these individuals overcame many obstacles and spoke of how welcoming our communities have been to them, they did share some of the difficulties they faced. These included the lack of public transportation, how family members were taken advantage of because they could not speak English, and people highlighting how they are different instead of focusing on how they are the same. They also spoke of needing assistance in navigating the college application process, completing the paperwork for school registration, and in accessing healthcare. 

The Refugee Action Network helps with some of these obstacles. In addition to providing housing and assisting with the legal process, there is also a volunteer network that helps with transportation and with access to a communication liaison to host families. 

However, there is always a need for additional support. The network is looking for housing in order to expand its capacity. It is also welcoming additional volunteers. 

The free panel discussion was made possible by a grant by Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association in collaboration with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and the Vermont Humanities Council, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. To learn more, visit cvran.org.