Volunteering with Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program

by Casey Hurlburt
Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, founded in 1980, works with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. USCRI is a national organization that helps refugees find permanent, safe homes where they can rebuild their lives. USCRI determines the talents and skills of refugees and immigrants and places them in communities where they will have opportunity.
At the point when a refugee or refugee family arrives in Vermont, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program takes over. VRRP organizes volunteers to help refugees get acquainted with the culture and community. When refugees first arrive, volunteers take them through a typical day; going to the grocery store, helping them use public transportation, and generally developing a relationship so they feel more comfortable.
Heidi Lynch, Saint Michael’s College Alum 2010, took a class about refugees at St Mike’s and brought me with her to meet the refugee family she has been working with. Her class took place fall 2009, but she has continued to maintain a relationship with the family.
Heidi was placed with Sabitra Dulal because she needed extra help with English. Hem, her son, explained that VRRP asked what the family needed, and they told them their mother needed an English teacher.
Hem and Sabitra came to Burlington after living in Nepal for 17 years as refugees, displaced from their home country of Bhuton. Later, Geetha (Hem’s sister), Geetha’s husband, and Nanni (their daughter) joined them.
Heidi initially began with teaching English, but as she developed a relationship with them, they were able to act more like friends. Now she helps them with anything they need and the schedule is more relaxed.
“When I first started, I was coming once or twice a week and the neighbor would come over too, and we would do lessons together. It changes. Sometimes I just come over, sometimes I call,” she said, “It varies… I was helping Sabitra with English and then Hem needed help so I switched. Once we’re friends it sort of just becomes whatever it is and doesn’t have to be so consistent.”
As a volunteer, while you help the family adjust, you also gain different things, depending on the situation. Heidi has traveled to India and will have returned to Bodh Gaya in September. She has been able to practice her Nepali with Hem and Sabitra.
“I’m learning some Nepali. It’s helpful to have the casual comfort level to exchange that so it’s not so formal… and they always make me good food,” she said.
When I visited with Heidi, there was lots of laughter and delicious food made by Sabitra. Little Nanni (who is 5) was also running around the house being adorable.
Heidi added that as a volunteer, your responsibilities are not so overwhelming. For example, Sabitra was also taking English classes in town, but it was good to have the extra help and the friendship that developed as a result. Outside of the English lessons, Heidi has taken Sabitra to work at the Intervale. She said that it helps to do activities where words are not needed as much.
“Measuring progress doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to become fluent in English, but just having a relationship is what’s important.”
If you are interested in getting involved with Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, visit their website at www.vrrp.org or call Laurie Stavrand, the volunteer coordinator, at 802-338-4627.
What does it mean to be a refugee?
Every person who fits the definition of “refugee” has a different story. There are people who fit this definition from many different countries and there are many different circumstances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14, 1950 to protect the rights and well-being of refugees. In 1951, they defined a refugee as a person who has been displaced from their country because of a legitimate fear of being persecuted based on race, religion, ethnicity, etc. A refugee remains outside of her/his home country because either s/he is unable to return or because the fear of violence is too strong.
Source: www.unhcr.org