The Day Of The Pelican: Passage

09/21/10 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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Vermont Reads 2010: The Day Of The Pelican

AP photo/Enric Marti
A Macedonian policeman guards a refugee camp while ethnic Albanians queue for food in May 1999.

(Wertlieb) And now, Vermont Reads, VPR's collaboration with the Vermont Humanitics Council. Good morning, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Migrating birds at least presumably know where they're going. Most refugees do not.

Most are civilians. Often whole families cling to each other, desperate to stay together. And so it is in Katherine Paterson's novel, "The Day of the Pelican," the featured book in this year's Vermont Reads project.

In 1999, Paterson's church, Barre's First Presbyterian, sponsored a Bosnian family through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement program. She got to know them, and their journey inspired the book.

In "The Day of the Pelican," Paterson describes a fictional family's arrival in Vermont from war-torn Kosovo.

Nijaza Semic is herself a refugee who resettled in Vermont from Bosnia. Here, she reads an excerpt from "The Day of the Pelican."

"The smiling, nodding Americans put Mama, Vlora, and Meli into the backseat of one large, silver car, and Baba, Mehmet, and the little boys into a green van. Adona climbed into the van as well. The welcomers split up, a man and a woman in each vehicle, and then they took off, pausing only to pay someone at the exit of the airport. There didn't seem to be any police on guard. There wasn't a soldier or a gun in sight.

Meli tried not to panic. She told herself it wasn't Kosovo - people didn't just disappear in America - but she kept turning to look out the back window to keep the van in sight, just in case.

Thankfully, the man and woman in the front seat didn't try to talk to them. Occasionally, they would say something quietly to each other. Once in a while the woman in the passenger seat would turn and smile at them. Mama and Meli would try to smile back.

Vlora, now wide awake, was staring out the window. "Look!" she cried. Meli looked and saw, to her astonishment, mountains. She felt a great wave of homesickness for her own Cursed Mountains and the Sharr range with its high pastures where horses ran free. Was the family free now? She looked at the backs of the welcomers' heads and wondered.

The car ride was nearly as long as the last plane ride had been. They left the broad highway and took a more winding road down a hill into a town. They turned off the street lined with shops onto another lined with large trees. The leaves were beginning to change color like the - no, not like the chestnuts in the hills.

At last the car - and then, thankfully, the van - pulled up in front of a huge house. As they got out of the car, Adona came over to explain that they would have an apartment in the house, not the whole house. Mama smiled and nodded. They walked up one flight of stairs behind the welcomers. Someone produced a key, opened the door, and then handed the key to Baba.

"Welcome home," he said, or at least that's what Meli thought he said. Adona didn't bother to translate it. The Lleshis took off their shoes and walked across the threshold. Adona said something to the welcomers, so they took off their shoes as well, looking a bit embarrassed as they stood there in their stocking feet.

For Meli the apartment lacked the welcoming feel of home, but it was far better than a tent. She meant to thank the big, smiling Americans, but she was too tired to make the effort of putting her tongue between her teeth to make the right sounds, and when Adona showed her the little room where she and Vlora were meant to sleep, she fell like a rock on the nearest bed and was asleep before the welcoming party left the apartment." 

(Wertlieb) Nijaza Semic reading from "The Day of the Pelican."

The United States is one of ten countries that take refugees. They're settled here by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. In the last twenty years, the program has brought 5,000 people to the state from a variety of countries and cultures.

The Refugee Resettlement Program is run by Judy Scott from an unassuming building in Colchester's Fort Ethan Allen.

(Scott) "Oh, so there's an intake going on. (other woman) Yeah.

(Wertlieb) Scott explains what the orientation process is like for new refugees.

(Scott) Part of what happens in the first few days of an arrival is that the family comes into our office for an intake, meets with their case manager, the employment people, the cash assistance specialist, with the ELT teacher.

(Wertlieb) The program gets just two weeks notice to find a family an apartment and furnish it.

(Scott) Then we do meet them at the airport, the case manager, and often other staff members as well, go to the airport, greet them. If they already have family here we take family members there as well.  It's a wonderful scene. People have usually been on the plane for 30 hours, totally exhausted, yet at the same time, so excited sort of in a state of disbelief. Could I be in America. Is this really true? And by the way arrivals rarely come before 10 o'clock at night. It's as if there's a rule, you aren't allowed in Vermont until 10 p.m. So, in general this is all happening at midnight.

(Wertlieb) I can't imagine that, I mean they're all arriving sometimes with small kids, they've taken this long journey.

(Scott) Yeah. And mostly can't eat the food. The plane food is just so strange to them that they mostly haven't eaten for thirty hours. A recent arrival, was someone who had been born in Somalia, expected to live his life there. Never occurred to him that he would leave his country, but when warlords descended upon his farm, he had a choice of fleeing or losing his life. So he and his family just ran, carrying the little children. They had to walk for about a week to get to the border of Kenya, at that point they had to continue a shorter distance to get to a refugee camp. The food comes twice a month, but it's never enough to take you to the end of the month, but you've got something. The water supply is very limited. So I think the worst part about those refugee camps though is there's no future for the people there. They're not allowed to work. They have no way to support their families, so they have no hope. When they get an opportunity to apply for resettlement in the United States, for them it's very frightening to do it. They have no idea what's awaiting them in this new country, but I think they find a courage born of desperation because they have nothing where they are. When people apply they don' t know what country they'll go to and they don't know where in the country they'll go. We've had clients say that ‘what was Vermont? I'd never heard of Vermont. I knew New York City, I knew California. What's Vermont, where is it?'

(Wertlieb) If there was one thing that you wanted people to know about refugee resettlement - and how difficult it can be - what would you tell them?

(Scott) I think perhaps the hardest thing about being a refugee is that along with losing your home and your homeland, your language, your career, you also lose your identity, nobody knows who you are.

(Wertlieb) There's a perception people may have of you that may not be who you are.

(Scott) That's right. And it's really not possible for them. Even if they're empathetic people it's not possible for them to understand who you are. 

There's a client that told me that the hardest part for him was that as he was learning English people thought he was only as smart as what he could say. There was so much more in his mind that he understood, that he wanted to communicate. But people thought that his mind was as limited as his words were.

(Wertlieb) Judy Scott is the director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

Tomorrow, we'll hear what it's like to rebuild an identity after being resettled in the United States.

For VPR News, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

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vermont_reads_2010 day_of_the_pelican arts
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