Vermont’s multicultural liaisons help create bridges between new immigrant families and schools

Padam Thapa, a liaison with the Winooski schools, chats with a youngster at lunch on Wednesday, July 20. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When Abeer Alzubaidy came to Vermont from Iraq in 2014, she experienced firsthand the language and cultural barriers that she now helps Arabic-speaking families work through in Winooski.

Formerly a middle and high school math teacher in Iraq, Alzubaidy is now one of seven multicultural liaisons hired by the Winooski School District. She helps about 10 Arabic-speaking families with much more than translating school work and interpreting district notices.

Among them: Rasha Ehmood, who came from Jordan and relied on Alzubaidy’s help to register her three children — aged 5 and under — for preschool.

The work liaisons do is critical for families like hers, Ehmood said through Alzubaidy, who helped translate from Arabic.

“They helped me connect with the teachers, helped me connect with the person who’s responsible for the preschool program,” Ehmood said. “Contacting her, talking to her, sending her messages and knowing all the information — that is very important for me and my kids.”

Liaisons go far beyond their job descriptions on paper and often end up working beyond school hours. In addition to supporting teachers with new students in the classroom and helping immigrant families communicate with school and city departments, they also provide assistance with health care, housing, food, legal aid, insurance, transportation and internet issues. 

Originally from Bhutan, Tul Niroula is one of two Nepali and Hindi-speaking liaisons in the Winooski schools, which serve over 100 families speaking those languages. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Originally from Bhutan, Tul Niroula is one of two Nepali and Hindi-speaking liaisons in the Winooski schools, which serve over 100 families speaking those languages. Niroula said sometimes families call him after hours for help with grocery shopping, Medicaid or food stamp applications, housing and sometimes even advice on family conflicts.

“Even when there is a problem, they don’t like to call police, they call me,” he said. “Sometimes they even call on the weekends but I don’t like to say no.”

Winooski started its program around 2004 when the district sought to hire liaisons to serve as “cultural brokers” between non-English speaking families and the school district, said Mohamedou Diop, the new director of the school district’s multilingual learner program.

Diop grew up in Mauritania and speaks seven languages. He first visited Vermont during one of his vacations to the U.S. In 2015, he joined the Winooski School District as a high school study hall coordinator and later worked as a behavior interventionist and an equity and recruiting coordinator for the district.

Diop noted that liaisons took on greater challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, helping families transition to hybrid and remote learning, distributing devices and teaching computer skills, and assisted families struggling with Covid-19.

“Imagine how hard it would have been for our school district and for our non-English to limited-English speakers to understand the changes we’ve been through if we didn’t have our school liaisons,” Diop said.

“Imagine how hard it would have been for our school district and for our non-English to limited-English speakers to understand the changes we’ve been through if we didn’t have our school liaisons,” said Mohamedou Diop, director of the Winooski School District’s multilingual learner program. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Burlington School District also has a robust program, with 11 full-time multicultural liaisons on staff — an advantage that is often the envy of other school districts, said Miriam Ehtesham-Cating, the schools’ director of programs for multilingual learners.

A gift to the diverse community in Burlington, the liaisons speak two to four languages, are well known in their own immigrant communities and huge supporters of education for the children of those communities.

Their work is focused on helping the various communities gain “not only access to education but to have a voice and some engagement in their students' education,” Ehtesham-Cating said. In some cases, they have benefited from educational opportunities here and in their countries of origin “so they help students to thrive by being role models,” she said.

Among the Burlington liasons is Nijaza Semic of Bosnia, who said the calls she handles “have everything to do with what we are hired to do — and then some.”

She came to Vermont in 2001, just before 9/11, and began working as a communicator for the Bosnian community. After 11 years, she was promoted to multilingual liaison coordinator for the Burlington School District.

Semic said she serves about 60 Bosnian students in the district. She sees her role as “helping students not just feel safe and belong to this community but making sure they are welcomed,” and then doing the same for their families.

Parents call Semic asking her to inform the school when their children are arriving late or are sick. She’s also been enlisted to help families deal with a number of other issues, such as paying electric bills or fielding calls from state agencies.

“When you are a cultural broker, when you work with families who are speaking other languages in their home than English and they have a person who they are trusting, the calls that we receive really vary,” she said.

As more immigrants resettle in Vermont, school districts are looking for ways to help bridge the cultural gap to help students succeed. So it makes sense that the two most diverse school districts — Winooski and Burlington — have liaison programs that date back more than a decade. 

But the districts have been serving non-English speakers since the 1980s when the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program began placing families in Chittenden County. The English-language learning programs were remodeled and renamed “to reflect who our students are, their language strengths, and that we value those parts of their identity,” according to an outline from the Winooski school district website. 

The multilingual programs have grown substantially since. They serve roughly 300 pre-K-12 students who speak about 20 languages in the Winooski School District and about 530 students who speak 36 languages in Burlington, according to demographic data published by the districts.

Between them, the two districts reach families speaking Burmese, French, Hindi, Kirundi, Maay Maay, Somali, Swahili, Vietnamese and more. The districts also contract with interpreters on an on-call basis to deliver services in languages that the liaisons don’t know.

Suzanne Sprague, a spokesperson from the Agency of Education, said her agency does not have data on liaisons at the state level but that the positions “are important to support the success of students in school since many of the challenges they experience moving to a new community and culture occur outside of school.”

Noor Bulle, the Somali- and Maay Maay-speaking liaison in Burlington, also helps out in the Essex Westford School District.

Bulle, who has lived in Vermont since 2004, graduated from Burlington High School in 2008 and attended college at Northern Vermont University. Given his own experience as a refugee, Bulle said he wanted to give back to build cultural and linguistic bridges for refugee and immigrant students struggling with learning English, making friends and developing voices.

Padam Thapa, a liaison with the Winooski schools, chats with a youngster at lunch. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Essex Westford has two multilingual liaisons for Nepali and Somali or Maay Maay families and is looking to hire an Arabic speaker as well, said Tamara Parks, the district coordinator of multilingual learner programs there.

“They build relationships with families in the home language, help families access school communications, help families learn about processes such as registering their child for school or filling out lunch forms, and are there as an advisor, a culture broker and a trusted support throughout their child’s education within the EWSD,” she said in an email.

Other districts still hire interpreters to help non-English speaking students and families but some English Language Learning programs have expanded to create liaison positions to provide interpreting and translation services for families, tutorial support for students and professional development on diverse cultures for staff.

The Missisquoi Valley School District in Franklin County that serves a large number of Abenaki students has a longtime liaison in Jeff Benay, who has been working with Abenaki families at the local and state level for over three decades, according to Superintendent Julie Regimball.

“There was a real history of schools not meeting the needs of Indigenous people in our community, of people being marginalized and just not treated well,” she said. “And to have a school system that wasn’t responsive to their needs is wrong.”

Franklin County has operated a Title VI Indian education program for decades. It was a grassroots initiative started by the Missisquoi — the oldest and largest of four state-recognized tribes — with the local school system, Benay said. He currently works with about 500 students from the  Missisquoi Abenaki Tribe who attend Franklin County schools. At Missisquoi Valley Union High School, more than 25% of the students are Abenaki. “Vermonters tend to be very surprised when hearing those numbers,” he said.

The program began with a goal of equity, Benay said. They called themselves school facilitators rather than advocates as the latter conveys a sense of unequal power dynamics. 

Among the programs is an after-school initiative called the Abenaki Circle of Courage focuses on traditional dance, crafts and drumming for all and has been operating for almost 30 years with several public performances by students throughout New England, including at the Flynn Theater, Benay said.  

“I have always been impressed by Jeff's ability to work with tribal elders and the parent advisory group,” said Parks. She said Benay is “really skilled” at being an advocate for students and a bridge between families. He will often “act as a mediator if there’s conflict and support families and schools in coming together.”

School districts that cater to diverse populations should have multicultural liaisons “to try to be as equitable and inclusive as possible for the success of their students,” said Diop, the Winooski program director. 

Winooski School District Liaisons Padam Thapa, seated left, Dalib Bulle, standing top, Tul Niroula, right, and Monica John, center, pose with the district's Director of Multilingual Learner Programs Mohamedou Diop on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

At the basic level, liaisons convey essential school information such as student progress and school events, while also supporting teachers with newcomers in class. At a higher level, the liaisons help implement the district’s goals of equity and inclusion by connecting families to employment, housing and helping to build strong community roots.

Often “the backbone of the public education program for multilingual students,” cultural liaisons deserve our respect and gratitude for the work they do to build our community and their dedication exceeds expectations, said Laurie Stavrand, community partnership coordinator at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in Vermont.

“The warm welcome they provide to students and families with refugee backgrounds lays the groundwork for building relationships of trust between families and educators,” she said. “Cultural liaisons’ cultural experience and language skills uniquely enable them to nurture communication and understanding.”

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: [email protected]

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