Thursday June 13, 2013
Last Thursday, nearly 60 people – students, teachers, and members of the community – gathered in South Burlington High School’s auditorium. They were eager to hear the stories of two SBHS students who came to this country as refugees. Seniors Ars Sambou, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Deo Pokhre, from Nepal, had been sharing their histories with guidance counselor, Chuck Soule, who encouraged them to speak. “I want others to have the chance to expand their view of the world,” he said. Although there are currently 30 students in the English Language Learning Program, this event was a first for SBHS.
Twenty-two-year old Ars, who is bound for Champlain College in the fall, has lived in the United States for only two years. She approached the microphone with grace, speaking with eloquence and clarity – English is her sixth language. “New beginnings are hard” Ars declared. She certainly has had her share of “hard.” As a student in the DRC, she didn’t sit on a sturdy chair during classes or gather with friends for lunch in a spacious cafeteria. She sat on a dirt floor, tucked among 150 students. There was no school lunch program to promote nutrition. “Teachers came when they wanted to,” she said. During the 1997 Congo War, she lost several family members, and moved in with an uncle. If the saying “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is true, then Ars is the epitome of that sentiment. She knew that school was important, but her uncle’s permission was required and his price was too high; she denied her uncle’s demands.
Ars advice was pragmatic: “Life isn’t always fair. Every morning I ask God where my life is going. When I’m lost and sad, I know my mother is praying for me.” Ars has not seen her mother for two years. She still lives in the DRC, but they talk on the phone as much as possible.
Ars is fortunate to have a female teacher whom she trusts. Her teacher has encouraged her: “remember, all your efforts will soon pay off.” Ars’s final advice for the audience: “Don’t worry about tomorrow, live in the present. Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.”
The crowd rose, cheering and clapping. She stepped away from the microphone, her head high, her perpetual smile contagious.
Eighteen-year old Deo, headed for Vermont Tech in the fall, grasped the microphone, like a seasoned public speaker. His parents, born and married in Bhutan, left for Nepal in 1990. The Bhutan government had enacted restrictive citizenship laws, depriving those of Nepali origin of their Bhutanese nationality. Deo’s family lived by a river in Nepal, where people died regularly from starvation and rising waters. “Thirty kids would die in one day,” he said. Eventually, they moved to a refugee camp in East Nepal, a tent their only shelter. Fences surrounded the camp. “You couldn’t get out,” Deo said, relaying his parent’s experience. Born in the camp, Deo attended school there, where he faced the threat of the bamboo stick. “If you didn’t do your homework you got beat up. If you got 10 out of 20 wrong, you got beat 10 times,” he said. A collective gasp filled the auditorium.
In 2006, Deo and his family were allowed the opportunity to apply for asylum to another country. But Deo wasn’t prepared to ride a plane. “I didn’t know I was going to fly. I had never seen a plane land before.” He laughed, and the audience laughed with him. In Deo’s culture there were no such things as locks. “I went to the bathroom on the plane, and the door locked,” he said. “I didn’t know how to get out.”
Deo’s family learned they’d be living in Vermont when they arrived at Burlington International Airport. They waited three hours for someone from the International Organization of Migration to take them to their new home, arranged by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Eventually, Deo walked over to “a guy holding a gun.” He showed the officer the necklace he was wearing. It read, Call this number. The oldest of three siblings, it was his responsibility to approach the man with the weapon. Looking out to the gathered crowd he said, “I had to take care of everything.”
Deo’s thick eyebrows crinkled as he described the stove in their new home that they didn’t know how to use. “I never saw anything like this before.” After just three days in Vermont, they ran out of money – they had come to the states with a paltry thirty-five dollars, not nearly enough to purchase a day’s worth of food for a family of five. Deo and his father walked the streets wondering what to do. They walked two hours, with no idea where they were headed. “All the streets looked the same,” Deo said. “Then we saw another guy with a gun.” Deo showed the officer a card, with his address, and they were taken home. Fortunately, they connected with empathetic neighbors, who were willing to take them food shopping.
Deo’s initial experience in the school’s lunchroom was fraught with frustration – he didn’t know what to ask for in the line. Everything was unfamiliar. For Deo, lunchtime is still frustrating and sad. “We have a table,” he gestured, “where only foreign people sit, alone. If people don’t understand what you’re saying, they ignore you,” he said, slicing the air with his hand.
Whose duty is it to make sure we do understand? Ours? Theirs? Are we afraid of the unfamiliar? During his first year in the states, Deo wanted to return to Nepal, where, as he said, “everyone knew each other.” “Am I missing something?” he asked us.
We can understand people like Ars and Deo, if we choose, and why shouldn’t we? Don’t we all want to be understood? Maybe it starts with an act as simple as what Deo suggested. “Next time you see me eating lunch alone, please, come and sit with me.”
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor