(This Alumni Profile was taken from the Spring/Summer 2017 Saint Michael’s College Magazine)
Welcoming New Americans to Vermont
Thato Ratsebe ’05 works for the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV), a community-based nonprofit organization in Burlington that serves refugees and immigrants from all over the world. Ratsebe explains her role: “With more people resettling in Vermont, the organization has expanded services to ensure that everyone who comes through our doors feels welcome. While my primary role is to manage programs and supervise staff, I also do direct services with clients who may have complex cases. My other role is to facilitate groups and deliver health education programs to ensure our communi¬ties have accurate information to lead healthy lives.”
She adds, “We work as a team to help people with various needs, such as application for housing, jobs, and referrals to other appropriate service providers such, as counseling services; as well as advocacy. We also offer immigration services to help with adjusting status and naturalization, and other immigration-related matters. I help lead a team of incredible case managers who are fiercely dedicated to their work. Their dedication drives what I do.”
One of AALV’s programs is New Farms for New Ameri¬cans, a community-based gardening and agriculture program that serves on average 100 refugees and immigrants each year. Many of the 6,300 refugees who have settled in Vermont over the last 30 years have come with a lifelong experience of farming, but once here many do not have sufficient access to land and resources to continue their agrarian traditions. New Farms for New Americans allows these gardeners and farmers to grow large quantities of fresh vegetables for their families (over 300 refugee households were served in 2015); grow culturally significant crops such as snake gourd, water spinach, roselle, daikon, amaranth, African eggplants, and mustard greens; and create food and financial security.
How did Saint Michael’s College affect the path of Ratsebe’s life? “Saint Michael’s was a place for total growth and discovery. My involvement with MOVE, the Student Global AIDS Campaign, and the Center for Multicultural Affairs affected me deeply, and the dedication to causes that professors and other community members demonstrated was infectious. Just to mention a few influenc¬ers: Trish Siplon, Moise St. Louis, John Carvellas, Lou DiMasi, Mike Samara, Paul Olsen, Fr. Mike (RIP), Fr. Brian, and the entire Campus Ministry team, and of course, the entire faculty at the Media Studies, Journalism & Digital Arts department. They all saw something in me and supported me in ways that I can never explain. Their affirmation came through in small conversations or acts of kindness.”
Ratsebe’s education at St. Mike’s helped her to refine her vision and goals. “Faculty take the mission very seriously and live by it. When you are surrounded by people who care, and are not afraid to challenge the status quo, and search for the truth, how can you not want to become one of them?” she asks.
“My professors were interested in my personal and profession¬al growth, and encouraged me to get engaged outside the classroom. I was lucky to have teachers who pushed me to not only take what they’d share in cl ass, but do extra research and form my own opinions. I realized that my purpose and calling is to serve ‘the other.’ When the opportunity presents itself and you can make a difference in another person’s life, go for it! That’s what I go by. My goal is to do whatever it takes to make the world a better place to live in. That means passionately advocating for and respectfully engaging with others, and hopefully serving as a role model to the younger generation while encouraging them to realize their true potential.”
When Ratsebe first arrived in Vermont, her first stop from Botswana, she was a little disappointed. “I expected to see the taller buildings that I saw on TV while back home. I am not sure if I totally understood that there were different states! Over time, I fell in love with the state and grew to appreciate the beauty of Vermont, how the residents take care of their own environment, and the level of community involvement in both local and state politics. The great unconditional love and support I got from my host family, Bill Ryerson and Leta Finch, also played a huge role in influencing my love for Vermont. Coming from a communal society, I couldn’t help but connect with my neighbors. Ironically, they also influenced my views of life, and showed me true humanity by their deep caring. Dan Cox and Casey Blanchard, as well as Sarah Millham and Tom Horton, made me realize Vermont has people who simply don’t care about the color of my skin, but have interest in knowing that I am settling well and have everything I need to feel welcome.”
Now Ratsebe helps others make Vermont their home. How does she do it? “Vermont is a welcoming place. It is not a huge state and therefore is a little easier to navigate. You also have so many people who care about the refugee journey and take extra steps to help. Employers are interested in hiring refugees and immigrants and understand that refugees are here to secure stable lives for their children. Refugees have increased cultural diversity in Vermont. This is a huge benefit to the state. People from different walks of life are coming here and enriching each other and the local community. If Vermonters remain open to learning from others, this could help the younger generation learn to coexist and realize that we are all humans, and some of our differences can make the world a better place. It’s really up to state legislatures and businesses to tap into the talent that’s here to enhance the economy of the state.”
Leaving your home country because you are displaced by war, Ratsebe explains, is not a matter of choice. The many challenges refugees face include raising children in a different society while trying to maintain their own cultural value systems. “There’s obviously going to be conflict,” she says. “Adaptation takes time. Dealing with the past and the horrific experiences that people went through fleeing war zones is challeng¬ing. The existing systems, such as schools and social service providers, are working hard to accommodate newer popula¬tions. Overall, people are learning to be patient and work with each other because there’s always a lesson to learn.”
She continues, “When you work in a nonprofit, you don’t do it for money. It has to come from your heart. I work with people with big hearts. It’s encouraging. I gently push my colleagues to see the gifts they have and to foster them to do the best they can. They also challenge me to keep improv¬ing. I try my best to support their professional growth by offering professional trainings and by giving them space to be creative. That’s what I strive to do. I am learning to be a front leader, and hope to create a solid team that will forever be proud of the incredible difference they make in the community.”
Is Ratsebe ever homesick? Yes, she admits. “For my beautiful family.”