Political refugees find new home and help

July 24, 2005

By Melanie Menagh

Although her family farmed, they had to stay in the village away from the fields, because of the danger. "When I was 16," she recounts, "we were hearing the bullets. My family separated and everyone ran away. They wanted to rape us, and I couldn't accept it."

In an attack from an unknown enemy she was stabbed, yet she managed to escape, bleeding, with family and neighbors.

This story is being told by Maryann Liban, age 28. She loosens her beautiful multicolored blouse that is typical of many Somali Bantu women, and reveals a horrific scar on her chest, eight inches long and seemingly as wide. Suddenly, the pain and terror of a far-off world flood into the sunny, cheery meeting room of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program in Colchester.

As she recalls her grim past, Liban holds her youngest child, 1-year-old Bille, while her other children, Fariya, 2, and Faiza, 4, bright and full of energy, explore the room, piled with donated furnishings and clothing. At last the children discover a bag of toys and busy themselves with the contents.

Liban understands more English than she speaks, seems relaxed and breaks into a smile at some of the questions. Still, she admits to being more comfortable communicating through the interpreter courtesy of the resettlement program.

Liban is a Somali Bantu. The Bantus are a nomadic agrarian tribe that moves throughout parts of Africa. When they cross borders to find new farmland, as they have for centuries, they are often persecuted or banished. In Somalia, the persecution they have suffered has been based on racial and religious differences: Bantus are very dark skinned, while the ethnic Somalis are lighter; and the two groups subscribe to different branches of Islam.

As Liban describes it, fleeing her village in Somalia was only the beginning of a harrowing odyssey as she tried to escape from the civil war involving Somali government soldiers and rebel troops. The Somali Bantus were caught in the middle. For 12 years, and much of the 1990s, Liban traveled from refugee camp to refugee camp along the border with Kenya.

"So many people (were) in the camps," Liban says. "Others were coming and going, hundreds of thousands, a whole country moving." Her family held together in the camps, but shortages of food and lawlessness made life difficult and dangerous. "I was in three different camps. Security was not good. If you go out to get firewood, you'd be raped. The men go out to sell something for food, they were killed. ..."

Liban has five children, four of whom were born in refugee camps. "Sometimes you think maybe you have come to the end ... just thinking life is hard and there was nothing to hope for."


Liban's story is not particularly unusual. There are an estimated 30 million refugees across the world, from more than 100 countries, about half of whom are served by the United Nations High Command for Refugees. The United Nations sends staff to troubled regions of the world to determine which of the millions of displaced people might qualify for official refugee status and be located to a host country. Liban and her family were among the lucky few. They were granted refugee status a year and a half ago, and their names put on the list for resettlement in the United States.

A maximum of 40,000 U.N.-certified refugees are allowed into the United States each year, and several hundred come to live in Vermont. The United Nations is the international arbiter of who qualifies for refugee status and the opportunity to emigrate. The key elements are the levels of persecution for race, religion, nationality and political opinions; and membership in a particular social or cultural group that is being abused, often with government compliance. This protocol was adopted in 1951 at the U.N. Refugee Convention in Geneva, and in 1980 the U.S. government created a program for accepting refugees who qualified under these U.N. standards.

In this state, the immigration program is directed by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, which was established in 1985 and now has offices in Colchester. The program contracts with the U.S. State Department to do nuts-and-bolts resettlement work. Last year the program served about 300 people, according to its new director, Bob Sanders, who started on the job this month.

"We have approximately 18 full- or part-time staff; we also employ on an on-call basis 30 to 40 language interpreters and over 200 volunteers," Sanders says. "We're funded primarily through two federal agencies: the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services. They supply 80 (percent) to 90 percent of our budget. The other 10 to 20 percent comes from the state of Vermont (and from) fee-based interpreting services and private donations."

The resettlement program repatriates entire families, many of whom come from very different cultures, climates and social conditions. It gets them acclimated in 21st-century Vermont, finds them jobs, enrolls their children in schools, helps them navigate the health-care and public-assistance systems, and teaches them such rudimentary skills as shopping in a supermarket and cooking on an electric stove.

"The U.S. government expects all refugees to be working and economically self-sufficient in 90 days," explains the program's outgoing director, Stacie Blake. "Many of our clients arrive traumatized by war. Many have lived in refugee camps for 12 or 14 years. Some of our people have never been to school; some have master's degrees. We have people who read no language and people who are fluent in French, English and Swahili. We have worked with Vietnamese, Congolese, Sudanese, Bosnians, Turks. We have bilingual and bicultural case managers, so they can respond to needs in a culturally appropriate way."

Refugees who are fortunate enough to make it to Vermont usually have first had to negotiate a long, Byzantine path through various national and international bureaucracies. The United Nations and the governments of the United States and other countries that have resettlement programs send personnel to politically troubled and war-torn areas. Refugees must go through a complex application process that involves producing documents (when available) that prove identity and confirming family connections and backgrounds. This process can take weeks to years.

When a family successfully completes vetting by the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security, the U.N. International Office of Migration arranges transportation to new host countries. U.N. staff meet families at airports in the United States and help them with connecting flights; they also contact refugee organizations, such as the one in Vermont, to alert them of family arrivals. Usually the Vermont refugee program has no more than a few days' notice to make crucial arrangements.

It seems impossible that these refugees, many of them traumatized and disoriented, could become economically self-sufficient in just a few months. "The transition is not easy," concedes Vitaly Granzha, a case manager at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. "Most people are experiencing a clash of completely different structure, language, mentality, climate, (and) all that together is really shocking."

These people from diverse backgrounds generally have at least one thing in common that is important to their survival, program officials say. "The bottom line is most are highly motivated," Granzha says. "This is their chance of a lifetime to start over in a peaceful environment where they don't have to worry about daily threats and survival. We make it clear when they arrive they have responsibilities along with rights. But they have a positive attitude. They have very few important priorities, (but one is) family first. ... You have to do everything to provide for your family."

Granzha says the Vermont resettlement program is nearly 100 percent successful in helping refugees adjust. "They are very resilient, very resourceful people."


Jugoslave Brkovic, 46, a Colchester resident since 2002, is a case in point. He and his wife and three children lived in Trebinje, Herzegovina, a city of 40,000. Brkovic is a Serb, but his wife is Croatian. When hostilities broke out in the Balkans in the 1990s, the Brkovics, who were previously accepted in their community, encountered problems.

"When the war came, that changed (life), and we lost everything - job, best friends, peace," he says. "They say to me, 'Your wife is not like us,'" and Brkovic felt threatened. "You never know when (the soldiers) might come."

Brkovic is a solid, jovial man. He is enthusiastic about the opportunities available in his adopted home, and profuse in his thanks and praise for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. He speaks in Slavic-accented English, punctuating his thoughts with firm chops of his hand and raps on the meeting-room table in the program's office.

The Brkovics were forced to flee to Klicevo, Montenegro, where friends put them up in a small house. "We were happy to have that," he says, "but there was no future for my kids." They were among the last families to eventually arrive in Vermont from Montenegro, since the United Nations closed its office in that region late in 2002.

Brkovic found a job right away in Vermont thanks to the resettlement program's employment assistance services. "I started work after two or three weeks with $8.25 an hour. Now I get $16.70. The language was a problem," he confesses. "I learn English from the Beatles' songs. My English is like Tarzan."

But he is philosophical about his ordeal: "If you don't expect too much, you're happy for the little things. ... That was the only way for me. What I've got now is best I can do. I did it step by step, (and the) next step is to buy a house."

Brkovic's son, Vedran, 20, is also employed. "I work at Avex flight support (at the Burlington airport) as a ramp agent, 40 hours per week," he reports. Vedran, dressed in T-shirt, chinos and Nikes, shows a ready grin and brushes back his shock of brown hair when making a point. He is firmly set on his path to the middle class. He speaks nearly flawless English.

Vedran also is a full-time student at Community College of Vermont. "I finished my first year in Web design management. I have one more year at CCV and then will transfer to the University of Vermont or Champlain College." It's been rough going to school and working full time, Vedran says, but he is pragmatic. "This job is good enough to cover my college bills; my parents have their own responsibilities." He's no stranger to hard work. "I worked first at Price Chopper and Shaw's, and I'm one of the best employees everyone told me."


Liban and the Brkovics are among the lucky few accepted by the United States and immediately became eligible for government-sponsored services. But thousands of people also manage to arrive in the United States without having gone through the official procedures overseas. That means they must navigate the difficult process of applying for refugee status upon arrival here.

For anyone who makes it to Vermont without approval, there is another program to help - Vermont Refugee Assistance. Patrick Giantonio is the executive director of the Montpelier-based organization, which is accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice to assist undocumented asylum seekers.

"Many of these people have been targeted, arrested, tortured, spent years in jail," he says. "Somehow they're able to escape. They get false documents, cross a porous border. When they get to America, they're detained. False documents lead to mandatory detention. They have no legal status, (so) they're in a very precarious situation. You're dealing with a system that is tough, harsh, very rigid."

In 2003, Vermont Refugee Assistance, with a staff of two but with a host of volunteers, served 1,033 people. Giantonio describes its annual budget of about $75,000 as very small. Most of the money, he says, comes from grants from religious and other types of foundations and from small contributions from individuals. "The community has always been a strong part of VRA's makeup," Giantonio says.

Vermont Refugee Assistance has a board of legal advisers - some from Vermont, some from Boston and other parts of the country - that deals with the legal maze that confronts the refugees. "We have some of the country's brightest immigration attorneys on our board," Giantonio says proudly.

Until their status is determined, asylum seekers are often treated like criminals. The U.S. government estimates that more than 20,000 immigrants are being held in immigration jails across the country even though, as Giantonio asserts, "very, very few are dangerous characters."

Asylum seekers can have as tough a time in legal limbo in the United States as they do in the overseas refugee camps.

"They are held in jails, shackled when transported (to immigration hearings), subjected to body searches," says Giantonio. The process for petitioning for refugee status is very slow, so many asylum seekers languish in U.S. prisons for three or four years before their cases are finally adjudicated. Representatives of Vermont Refugee Assistance regularly visit the Franklin County Detention Center in St. Albans to work with jailed asylum seekers, giving seminars about their rights, connecting them with lawyers, and appearing on their behalf at an immigration court in Boston.

Vermont Refugee Assistance's work is somewhat different from that of the refugee resettlement program. "Their work is basically to get people started in the U.S. who have been already granted refugee status. They've arrived here, their legal process is already completed," Giantonio says. "Most of the people we work with have not finished their legal process, and many are just starting that process. ... Our mandate is (to help) people who need protection."

It is a job that has become increasingly difficult in post-Sept. 11 America. In 1995, the United States approved 140,000 asylum claims. In 2004, it was 30,000. "Internationally, richer countries are making it more difficult for refugees to have access," says Giantonio.

Previously, Vermont Refugee Assistance was more involved in helping refugees in this country cross the border into Canada, where acceptance rates are greater. Recently, however, a protocol, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, has changed that. "It basically restricts the movement of asylum seekers from one country to another," Giantonio says. Now if an asylum seeker is in the United States, he or she must seek protection here; going to Canada isn't an option.

The situation may worsen with implementation of the Real ID Act, just passed by Congress this spring. The law, says Giantonio, will require additional documents from asylum seekers and will give judges greater powers to deny asylum based on inconsistencies in a story and the demeanor of the applicant. "This is a very difficult standard because of cultural differences and the effects of torture and trauma on individuals," Giantonio says. "Often people have difficulty in the face of authority figures. It's hard for them to make a strong, clear, compelling case.

"For instance, a woman arrives at the airport applying for asylum. She was raped by the military in her country, and here she is being questioned by people in uniform. She might not want to answer certain questions. Later, in front of the judge and with an attorney, the full details of her story might come out, which would seem inconsistent with her original testimony taken upon entry. Her case could be denied based on that."


Because of such expected strictures, a young man, who would provide only his first name - Ren - was advised by his lawyers to be extremely cautious when being interviewed by a reporter. Ren, who is from an undisclosed Southeast Asian country, was interviewed by phone to assure his anonymity. His case is pending, and his lawyers worry that if a published account of his life diverges even slightly from the story told to immigration authorities, that could doom his bid for asylum.

Here is Ren's story in his words:

"When I was 6 years old, government troops came to our village and started fighting the opposition troops. My brother died in the fighting. Five of us left and walked for 28 days. Government soldiers were following us, so we had to hide in the jungle and walk at night. It was the rainy season, so it was really hard to cross the mountains. Even if we had rice, we were afraid if we cooked it, the soldiers would see the smoke and come arrest us. I felt lost, just hiding, walking. I felt like we are going to die."

Finally, Ren says, his family crossed the border into a neutral country and moved from camp to camp over the next seven years. He went to live with a family friend in a town so he could have the chance to attend school, but was arrested because he didn't have the right identification papers. "They told me I was in the country illegally," Ren says. "They sent me to prison. We had to work, to carry big stones. I was 14."

Eventually he was released and reunited with his family in another refugee camp, where he had a chance to attend school outside the camp. After two years, however, Ren had to quit school because his parents had become ill. "I became a daily worker carrying things and working in the rice paddies," he says. "Work all day, and they pay you less than 10 cents."

A human-rights group that helps young people in Ren's region obtain visas to study in the United States arranged for Ren to come to Vermont to finish high school, and now he is going through the legal process in an attempt to stay. And he still faces a major problem: He does not have the documents that the United Nations and U.S. Homeland Security Department require to help establish a person's identity. It is anyone's guess whether he will be permitted to stay.


Once here, not all refugees want to stay. "Everybody's first choice is to go home to their country" after it is safe, says Blake, the outgoing director of the refugee resettlement program. "The second choice is to be assimilated in the country where they (have fled). The third solution is resettlement." The experience can be bittersweet. "For some, it's heartbreaking to give up their citizenship," Blake says.

Giantonio concurs. "I had a guy from Pakistan who said it was a sad and sweet day" when he became a U.S. citizen. "He had to protect himself and his family," so he came to America, but the tradeoff was a "loss of identity."

The people who work with refugees insist that the immigrants are an enormous asset to this country. "If you've gotten through all the gates to get here, by definition, you're a survivor. We say here that we work with angels," says Blake.

"They come here with hope and aspiration that they will be able to find protection," says Giantonio. "We see resilient, dynamic people who have suffered so much. ... They are survivors."

The refugees interviewed for this story seem anxious to put the past behind. "Sometimes I got a very hard time, but I don't like to talk about that. I have to take a breath, continue," says Jugoslave Brkovic.

"I don't want to talk about what happened before," says Maryann Liban. "I became happy when I came here. I thought: 'I came now to heaven.' I'm happy my children go to school. We're not wanting food, a hospital, transportation. I thank God for that."

Ren says: "My future is to go to college here, (and) when I finish, I will go back to my country and help people. Especially since I grew up in a refugee camp, a lot of kids there have no education, no place to go, no wish," he says. "I really want to help my country to become a democratic country."