A Changing Community: Refugees Moving to Vt.

Published 05/15 2014 07:10PM

Updated 05/15 2014 10:31PM

WINOOSKI, Vt.- Refugees who move to Vermont are given a second chance and in turn, lead to change in their new towns.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program says more than 6,500 refugees have resettled in Vermont since 1989. They've come from all over the world, from countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

For those thousands of people, it has not been an easy trip to get to Vermont. They fled their home because of persecution, war, or violence.

While hundreds still arrive in Vermont each year, others have been here decades and have not only become comfortable in their new community, they are helping to run it.


The young faces in Ms. Bryan's kindergarten class showcase a dramatic change in the Winooski School District.

"We have kids that are five-years-old and all they will know is having kids from all over the world in their class," says Robin Hood, ELL coordinator at the Winooski School District.

In the past decade here, the number of students for whom English is their second language jumped from nine-percent in 2002 to 36-percent in 2013. There are more than a dozen languages spoken in the school district.

"As much as it's a challenge, it's a real blessing to us as a district because we're also learning a lot from them," says Hood.

While many of these kids are just beginning to learn American culture, other refugees are helping to lead in the country that gave them a second chance.


"I came from Zenica which is central part of Bosnia-Herzegovina," says Bianka Legrand,D-Burlington City Councilor.

Legrand was recently sworn-in as a Burlington city councilor. She is the first new American to serve here.

"Why did you want to get involved in politics?" asked FOX44/ABC22's Matt Austin.

"Because I find it's very important to preserve the sense of community and closeness," says Legrand.

In 1997, Legrand and her family fled war-torn Bosnia. Their destination was Vermont.

"It was somewhat difficult to transition. Primarily it was the cultural differences and the language barriers. None of us spoke English at the time," says Legrand.


People granted refugee status are referred to a resettlement agency. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program is the only one in the state.

If refugees don't have a direct connection in the U.S., they are settled based on a community's ability to handle more people and if other members of a group are already living there.

"It is very hard coming, coming to United States is just the beginning of this new journey," says Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

Merdzanovic is a refugee herself, from Bosnia.

Newcomers meet with case managers who can help them learn English, find a home, and land a job. But they also receive help with other things such as setting up a bank account, school registration, and finding a doctor.

"Refugees are motivated and they are determined to take advantage of this new opportunity, of this second chance they've been given," says Merdzanovic.


Among the many businesses employing refugees is City Market in Burlington.

"They really want to work. Many of them come here with skills well beyond the positions," says Pat Burns, general manager of City Market.

Burns says there are 12 refugees working here, doing everything from cooking to working at the front end.

"The more exposure it can get them, the better the opportunities for doing other jobs and promotions," says Burns.

But even here there have been challenges.

Last November, there was a controversy after some workers were told to speak English. That was resolved when the store and the workers' union reached a deal which called for more diversity training.

"Every day we learn something different," says Burns.


There's also been a learning curve for law enforcement.

"One of the issues that we are confronted with is recognizing the needs of the arriving communities and it's very, very different for each one," says Chief Steve McQueen, Winooski Police Department.

McQueen says refugees understanding of culture and laws vary.

"What type of challenges are we talking about?" asked Austin.

"You name it, it's a challenge. That just because your neighbor has a garden doesn't mean you pick whatever you want out of it just because that's how you survived," says McQueen.

Different cultures is not the only concern at the Winooski School District.

"We have kids coming in at three-years old," says Hood, the ELL coordinator.

"All the way up to?" asked Austin.

"All the way up to into the 20's," says Hood.
Hood oversees nine English language learners teachers and four program assistants. While tests show refugees improve at school over time, many still fall behind native-speaking English students.

"It's not a one size fits all. It can't be," says Hood.

With little federal help, local money covers most of the cost of helping the new arrivals. Hood says it's about balancing the need of students including the 60-percent of Winooski students who are not refugees.

"We don't think about it that way. We're all in this together," says Hood.

While restarting a life in a new country might not be easy, it is possible to succeed. Just ask the refugee who now helps run the community that welcomed her 15-years ago.

"Patience and time and explore and try to get to learn what it is here and fall in love with it and everything else will fall into place," says Legrand, the Burlington City Councilor.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program receives about $3-million from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

That money pays for the program staff and the help it provides to the refugees. The program also relies on donations and volunteers.

If you're interested in helping the program, CLICK HERE.

Copyright 2016 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.