Local refugee initiative brings hope to nationwide crisis

Amidst vicious debates in Washington, D.C. and a slew of controversial executive orders, the refugee crisis is at the forefront of many Americans’ minds. The one-month old Waterville Area New Mainers Project (WANMP) demonstrates that those in Central Maine are no different.

The project, according to Colby Professor of Russian Julie de Sherbinin, aims to, “over time, develop a systematized way for residents of the greater Waterville area to interact with refugees who are settled in, or decide to move to, this part of the state.”

Currently, the primary focus of the group is on the Munézero family. The three sisters and two brothers, ranging from 20 to 30 years old, recently moved to the Fairfield, ME from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by way of Burundi. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are 2,701,921 “people of concern” in the Congo.

The Waterville Area New Mainers Project has helped the Munézero family   with English language tutoring, driving lessons, assistance with transportation, house hunting, and getting to know a new culture. In an email, de Sherbinin said that she believes the help to be a “mutual learning process,” because the Munézeros can broaden the cultural horizons of established Maine residents.

Doré, Salix, Annick, and Lyse Munézero have been attending many local events, most recently a men’s hockey game at the College.

de Sherbinin was interested in refugees as a child, saying active concern is in her blood. Her parents worked with the International Refugee Organization in Geneva after World War II and were so devoted to their work that they ultimately adopted de Sherbinin’s brother, Kemp, from Cambodia.

On campus, de Sherbinin has been the faculty adviser to the Amnesty International Club and was involved with the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights. More recently, she served on the grant-selection committee for Maine Initiatives with New Mainers from Burundi, Cameroon, and Somalia.

Assitant Professor of Education Karen Kusiak has also dedicated her time to the project. “I became involved with the Waterville Area New Mainers Project as soon as I learned that New Mainers are living in greater Waterville,” Kusiak said. “I have been involved with the Hope House English Language Program in Portland which is an organization that provides English language classes to new Mainers,” and as a result of this prior acitivity a friend referred Kusiak to WANMP.

Kusiak also alluded to the mutual benefits that the program gives to the Munézeros and the volunteers. She said in an interview with the Echo, “Each volunteer likely has a different reason for being involved. Some of us are motivated by the challenge of supporting the family as they learn English. Others may be involved with WANM as a way to be in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers.”

Former Colby nurse Alison Gagliardi told the Echo she was “greatly surprised” to find out there was a refugee family in the area and subsequently devoted her time to creating a database of volunteers.

Several Colby students have also given their time to the project. Sandra Ntare ’17, the leader of the College’s African dance ensemble, Vuvuzela, has played a crucial role. She not only is able to speak with the family in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda and eastern Congo, but she also invites the siblings to join in on rehearsals, which de Sherbinin says helps them feel at home.

The greatest success of the project thus far, according to de Sherbinin, is “the tremendous outpouring of interest and engagement on the part of people from Belgrade, Fairfield, Skowhegan, Starks, Waterville, and other places. There are 95 people on the e-mail list for an organization that is about a month old!” The hope de Sherbinin expressed also applies to her view on federal refugee policies. “Personally, I think that whatever damaging policies the current administration manages to impose will be annulled and reversed four years from now,” she said.

That is not to say that the political rhetoric surrounding refugees has not affected de Sherbinin’s work. “I’ve heard the refrain over and over that people want to do something to counter the sickening threat of closing down U.S. borders to the very refugees who have always made this country great.  Beyond phone calls and letters, WANMP allows folks to take concrete action. I believe that once residents get to know recent refugees—energetic, kind, smart people who aim to become self-sufficient as soon as possible—their efforts will redouble and the xenophobic and racist atmosphere in parts of the state will dissipate,”she said

Anyone hoping to get involved with the project can contact Alison Gagliardi at afgaglia@colby.edu to be added to the mailing list.