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Immigrant Stories from the AALV in Burlington, VT

In 2017 I worked with the AALV to document their work with new Americans and refugees in downtown Burlington, VT.  The organization, “helps new Americans from all parts of the world gain independence in their new communities through a range of integration services, including bridging case management, workforce development, behavioral health awareness, and interpreter services programming. With support from our multicultural, multilingual staff, our clients are able to smoothly transition to living and working in Vermont.” 

Talking with Thato Ratsebe the Assistant Director & Programs manager.

Julia: What are some of the biggest challenges for Refugees/Immigrants/New Americans in Vermont? 

Thato: Most people who come here as refugees, come from countries where there was torture or war. They had to run away from something. At some point, this trauma will become a challenge. I think the challenge is finding psychologists who have cultural competency training who have a deep understanding of the trauma that they may have gone through.

Another challenge is finding affordable housing and stable jobs. The language is a big deal when coming into any culture. Most people who come here don’t have an opportunity to learn English because they have to go to work right away. In terms of the younger generation, getting adequate help in the school system to help them succeed.

J: What are some common misconceptions that people have about immigrants and refugees?

T: First of all, they didn’t choose to be a refugee. To become a refugee means that circumstances were horrible and forced you to leave your own country. So the misconception is that people just want to depend on the state benefits, when it’s really the other way around. Most refugees want to work and take pride in working. Refugees are here looking for stability for their children and just so they can have normal lives.

J: What lessons did you take away from your experience coming from Botswana in 2001 to study and work in the US that you try to pass on to your clients?

T: The biggest thing is to remain true to who you are, and learn as much as you can from the culture you are coming into. The US is an extremely individualistic culture - it’s about me, me, me or me and my family. Most of us come from where the community is your family. So understanding that basic cultural thing about the US, it can help to not take it too personally when people don’t approach you. Sometimes it takes being brave and introducing yourself, and then conversation starts. 

J: You work with clients who are facing a lot of adversity. What keeps you motivated?

T: I think looking at people seeing their resilience. How they work to achieve their goals. I am a deep believer that we as human beings, our greatest purpose is to help one and another. So that keeps me going. As well as seeing the dedication that others have, working tirelessly.

J: What are some of your greatest success stories with clients?

T: Some of our clients are running their own businesses. Some clients own their own home. Some of our clients' children graduated from high school or college. You can’t trade that. I try to go to as many graduations as I can. The parents have never had a chance to go to school, but I think they can see success through the lens of their children.

J: Do you have a personal or professional motto?

T: I’ve never thought about that… Remain true to myself and give my best in everything I do. 

J: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

T: If we could achieve peace. If we could avoid wars, learn how to dialogue, learn how to agree to disagree. The thing I would change is the ability of people to learn to interact beyond sexual orientation, beyond religious backgrounds and just interact as human beings. 


Thank you to the staff at the AALV and the new Americans who welcomed me into their lives.

Photo by Amira Silverman