Noor Hassan and Fardowsa Yusef and their two sons, Mohammed and Ahmed, came to Vermont as Somali refugees almost four years ago, in March 2009. They are among the 700 Somalis that have come through Vermont in the last few years.
Noor and Fardowsa came with nothing more than a few clothes and many hopes for a better future.
Each year, thousands of refugees are welcomed into the United States. Most have spent years in refugee camps after being driven from their homes, having their lives destroyed by war and violent conflicts in their home country.
When a refugee arrives in Vermont, with little or nothing, it is the The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, that provides support and resources to help the family begin their new life in the United States.
Noor and Fardowsa spent close to twenty years living in refugee camps in Kenya. They were married in 1992 in a refugee camp in Mombasa. In 1996, they were relocated along with thousands of others to another camp in Kenya where they lived until 2009 when their application for refugee status into the United States was granted.
Somalia is located in the horn of Africa – the easternmost part, with the longest stretch of coastline on the continent, but is considered one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. Somalia has been embroiled in a civil war since 1991 when the long-standing military government was ousted by armed opposition groups.
The change in climate, let alone in culture, is a huge shock. Kakuma refugee camp, where the Hassan family came from, is located in the northeast corner of Kenya and is a semi-arid desert environment. The average daytime temperature is 104 degrees. The refugees are not allowed to seek employment or education outside the camp and have no citizenship to Kenya or their home countries. They are there indefinitely, with little hope for the future.
As Judy Scott, director of the VRRP points out, the tools that allowed them to survive: quick-thinking, resourceful, courage are reversed when arriving at a refugee camp. They have no options, are given their food, given a hut to live in, have little opportunities for education and have no control over their circumstances.
Needless to say, Noor and Fardowsa were thrilled to leave Kakuma, but they had a lot of adjusting to do upon arriving in Vermont.
They now live in downtown Burlington. Their home is among eight townhouses with a lovely shared yard, bicycles, and play structure. The living room is full of people: neighbors, relatives and friends, as is the case on most weekends. The light from outside is dimmed by a large swathe of material over the front windows. On the couch are women with their heads covered wearing beautiful bright flowing skirts and scarves while in the back, crowded around the computer are the Hassan boys, long-limbed and heads shaved playing with their American neighbor, a boy with shaggy blond hair. A large screen TV shows an international soccer match, on mute.
“My name is Ahmed and go to Edmunds elementary (in 5th grade) I live in Burlington. I like about the stores, the malls, the places the playground, the video game stores, the TV place and soccer games and basketball and my playing with my friends,” Ahmed introduces himself.
“My name is Mohammed and I go to Edmunds Middle School (in 6th grade) says the other brother.
The boys’ mother, Fardowsa, wears a copper-colored headscarf that brings out the warmth in her dark brown eyes. Although she can be shy, her beautiful, bright smile is disarming and she uses it frequently, with everyone.
Fardowsa takes English classes four days a week. When she first arrived she was completely dependent on everyone else to do things for her outside her home. Like most refugees who come to Vermont, Noor and Fardowsa were paired with a volunteer from VRRP who serves as a family friend, helping the newcomers with orientation regarding food, housing, schools and cultural norms. This family friend is extremely important to the refugees in their first few weeks, and remains committed to helping them throughout their first year here. During this time many families develop lasting friendships with the family friend. The families have a great respect and gratitude for the role they played.
Fardowsa takes English classes at Mercy Connections (an educational non-profit and legacy of Sisters of Mercy) and at Ohavi Zedek, a synagogue on North Prospect street in Burlington, where VRRP rents classroom space to teach ESL to new refugees. Recently, the teacher was giving a lesson on how to use the library.
Fardowsa’s English has improved a lot but she still has a way to go before she can get a job. About a year and half ago, Signe Daly, a good friend whom she met at her son’s school when they first arrived, helped her get involved with the Visiting Nurses Association (VNA). In the refugee camps Fardowsa had some informal experience with nursing. Here in Vermont, she volunteered in the adult day program at the VNA, doing service jobs and anything else they needed that didn’t require her to speak too much English. At the end of the year, Fardowsa was given an award for her volunteerism in the community. She proudly shows me the certificate, beaming. Fardowsa would be happy with any job, but her dream is to work in that kind of nursing environment again.
“Everywhere job… I like it. I am ready…yeah. Now I need more English. My future… I like…nurses, nurses home. Because my English is still different…English is hard. I need more English, then, ready, anywhere job… I’m ready,” Fardowsa says.
Judy Scott says that language is the number one challenge for refugees in Vermont.
“I am reminded of a client who told me that the most difficult part of resettlement for him was that he was unable to express his thoughts in English and people thought he was no more than what he was able to say,” Scott explains.
As for Noor, Fardowsa’s husband, his English is better than his wife’s and he has been able to find work over the past couple of years at the Holiday Inn, the Sheraton, McDonald’s, at Champlain Valley Union High School and most recently at Budget Rental car. He is currently seeking employment.
Noor says before civil war broke out in his country, he was a soccer player.
“I grew up soccer player. I finish high school in Somalia. I play soccer in elementary school, middle school and high school I play soccer. I am lucky, last time I succeed to play in national team, in Somalia national team. I went in many continents in Africa to play soccer.”
He shows off some photos of his playing days.
“I remember always. I get in Internet, these pictures. This is 1982 this picture, is a black and white picture. That is 1987, that picture and that time we played that time, Rwanda team, the Red Devils team. Rwanda and Somalia. I live in soccer still,” Noor says.
Noor plays soccer every weekend - on Saturday afternoon in summer it’s at Calahan Park and Sunday afternoon in Oakledge Park - in different soccer leagues with people he now calls friends. In the wintertime, he plays in an indoor soccer league. For Noor, it is clear that soccer is his passion. It is the one thing he can do that needs no translation or new kind of training. On the field, the cultural divide between him and his fellow Vermonters disappears.
Over and over they say Burlington is a good place, safe and with a future for their children.
“Nice people, nice people because, no trouble, no tough, not scared, all smile of people. Because people is student, college often people busy. Some might work, jobs, universal, every time people is busy. And just my neighbor, never heard because no trouble, ‘Hi, Fardowsa! Hi.’ Many friends, all of them. My friends altogether Signe, Peggy, Kim, Susan, Signe Daly’s husband John, husband Peggy, Christina husband, all of them family, good family. Burlington is good place. I like it,” Fardowsa says.
While it is true that Vermont has been receiving refugees since 1987, many of them came from places like Bosnia or Iraq or Vietnam and although they did stand out, culturally or ethnically different from Vermonters, they did not stand out as much as the more recent refugees have – from such places as Somalia and Sudan or Burma.
Dr. Pablo Bose of the University of Vermont explains this as a new phenomenon and also how although VRRP and ALLV provide some services, it’s hard to keep up with the needs of each small group of refugees as they arrive.
“With these newer groups who are often visibly marked as racially different, or ethnically, culturally, linguistically, religiously different – they stand out. So it’s a really visible new pattern and they don’t have access to the same kind of resources you’d have in a city like New York,” Bose explains. “In New York you’ve had generations of immigrants so there’s language services, job training, all sorts of things. In small cities like Winooski and Burlington, you don’t have that same infrastructure.”
Nor is New York 97 percent white. This can make it more challenging than it already is for refugees to feel familiar here. One Rwandan refugee has said that he didn’t know he was black until he arrived in Vermont. Despite these obvious differences though, there are many similarities between groups, such as religion.
At Noor and Fardowsa’s home, a call to prayer comes over the stereo. They pray four times a day, in their home, since there is no mosque close enough to walk. Noor tells me that once a year the Muslim families in Vermont come together to celebrate the holiday Eid, the holiday feast that comes after the month-long fast of Ramadan. Usually it is held at a big hotel like the Sheraton. The mosque in Colchester is too small and crowded to fit all the families – families of all different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities.
The conversation turns back to Kenya, and the refugee camp. In a refugee camp, there is no sense of the future, no idea of when you can leave, or where you will go. There is often no hope because there is no home to go back to, you are not a citizen of anywhere, you are not able to work for a living or keep your family safe.
“Before, there is survival, because up ’91, ‘91 my country’s lost. No peace, some in Kenya long time, twenty, eighteen years in a refugee camp, before Mombasa. Come move, move last, Kakuma, camp to camp then last Kakuma near Nairobi, Kenya. Long time, some are lucky. Camp…malaria…no water…no security,” Fardowsa says.
“Because of no security local, have a gun come over to your home and kill you sometimes. They take from what you have, from refugees. Live in refugee camp and the Kenyan government and the UNCR and sometimes they are complaining UNCR and Kenyan say we can fix this problem, so next month they kill neighbor to you. My kids and my wife are scared every time, nighttime especially. Because no light, no nothing, and dark and the guy was come to your door. You cannot see him but he see you because we have small light, inside in our home they see inside but we cannot see outside,” Noor says.
“With past time when was in Africa or when I was escape from my country to a neighborhood in Kenya. And time we live in refugee camp inside. In twenty years, good experience, and we happy, say God, thank you for bring in safe my children and our family,” Noor says.
In Vermont, their biggest fears have been put to rest. They are no longer worried about survival. Instead, they can turn their attention to education, jobs and activities. Even humor.
“Oh my marriage? Long time,” Fardowsa says.
“We got married in refugee camp in 1992. You can choose each others, you can marry each other. After we go her father, and he died now, so we go him and he told us, ‘you guys together so I know you are together, but I say well myself, you are together, be together.’ So it was a long time ago, so we are happy to live in long in marriage,” Noor says.
“You like another marriage, look …lady?” Fardowsa laughs.
“No, I choose one, so I pick up one. I’m done,” Noor says, as they both laugh.
And small pleasures go a long way. For Fardowsa, it’s ice cream. Whether it’s from the corner store or Ben and Jerry’s, she can’t get enough.
While these new Vermonters have been through harrowing experiences, experiences most of us cannot even fathom, here in Vermont, their lives are not unlike our own. Fardowsa is at the school every afternoon to pick up her sons.
Signe Daly, a good friend of Fardowsa’s tells me how they met on the steps of the school, both tired, both wondering what to make for dinner that night. Signe explains that she met Fardowsa and Noor in the same way you would meet any newcomer to a school or neighborhood. Having moved to the United States from Denmark when she was a teenager, Signe is tuned into new faces.
Although they spoke different languages, and talk may have been limited, their emotions were not. Signe and Fardowsa bonded over the simple, daily tasks that make up a life.
“Fardowsa is really a great friend. We really connect. It’s not so much about what we can do to help. It’s really about that rich friendship. We’ve spent many hours sitting in here and drinking coffee and coming by, she would come by. She took English classes at the synagogue and Noor too, between jobs and just sitting here and laughing and telling stories, or learning their language or looking at different letters or looking for at a map where things are, just sharing stories and laughing, just sitting at this table, drinking tea and she would bring her friends they would just come over after their class. So you know enriched in a great friendship that developed,” Daly says.
Now Signe brings Fardowsa along to PTO meetings and Fardowsa makes samosas. She doesn’t understand everything that is being said but she is present, as invested in her sons’ education as the other American-born parents are. It’s a starting point, for her, a New Vermonter, and for the others in the room.
Dr. Shelley Mathias, principal at Edmunds Elementary School, says American parents have gotten good at welcoming the new Americans but the next step is what they need to focus on now. Like Signe, more parents need to move beyond the hello and introduce them to someone else, invite them into the inner circles.
“I think the next step is to now sit down and talk to this parent that you don’t know, introduce this parent that you don’t know to somebody that you do know and help spread that feeling of community in that way. And so that’s that next step, really taking the time to talk to and get to know and bringing them into the group that you normally talk with and get that part going. That’s a piece of the puzzle,” Mathais says.
The next piece of the puzzle is happening – because Signe Daly had introduced Noor and Fardowsa to others in the community over the past few years, as a result, Fardowsa and Noor had gotten to know many families. Signe reached out to a group of 20 families and within a month, Fardowsa and her two sons were on a flight to Edmonton, Alberta to visit her sister whom she had not seen in twenty years. With Signe organizing it, the community came together to help make a dream a reality, the way they would have done for any family in their midst.
But do Noor and Fardowsa miss anything about Somalia? Fardowsa’s answer is clear and confident. There is no other home now.
“No, over there, (Somalia) no peace, only fighting, my life is here now, in Vermont. Because no peace. There is fighting, now is not good. Still, my life is here, Vermont. Now I’m happy…so my husband, my sons, my country… I’m happy.. good community,” Fardowsa says.