Charlie Bernicke '21
Champlain Valley Union High School, Hinesburg, Vermont

Pasco’s dark brown eyes lit up as he saw me walk into his classroom on the third floor of Burlington High School. “Charlie, Charlie!” he exclaimed.

“Hey, buddy,” I said as I pulled up a chair next to his desk. “What are you working on today?”

Pasco began to play with the zipper on my vest, reluctant to pull out his long division homework that he had been struggling to complete for the past two weeks. “C’mon Pasco, I know we’ve got some work to do,” I persisted.

“Okay, but why are you helping us?” Pasco asked. This question caught me off guard.

I had been tutoring Pasco and his class of around 15 Burundian children at the Kirundi school for the past year and a half. This school aims to preserve the Kirundi language in the Burundian community in Burlington for kids between the ages of 6 and 13. Aline, a refugee from Burundi, founded the program, which runs every Saturday at Burlington High School.

My mother became involved with the program in 2012, teaching French to the first and second graders. At the time, Aline saw these young students falling behind in math, science, and English in their full-time school and turned to my mom in desperate need of advice. I offered to help tutor, and began working with kids every Saturday for two hours. I introduced the program to a friend, and together we created a club called the Refugee Outreach Club, or ROC, which now has over 30 members from my high school. In addition to tutoring at the Kirundi school, we help organize events to support refugee families throughout the greater Burlington area.

Struggling for an explanation to Pasco’s question, I explained what the Refugee Outreach Club was.

“But I’m not a refugee, I’m from Burlington,” Pasco explained.

I realized that Pasco didn’t want to be seen as a “refugee.” He had grown up in Burlington, and considered it his home. By labeling him as a “refugee,” I was no longer helping him as an older friend, or mentor, rather as a white privileged teenager.

I proceeded to help him complete his homework. But in the following weeks, I kept thinking about this interaction. I felt as though I had made him feel excluded, that he was charity work to make a college application look more attractive.

“Refugee” is a loaded term no matter what your political perspective is. As Americans, we tend to look at refugees either as intruders and threats to our society, or as poor, marginalized groups that need charity. These interpretations create a distance between refugees and Americans.

Pasco sparked me to take action, and I began to think of changes that we could make to the ROC tutoring program that would bring both the tutors and students together as peers. The first change that I felt was necessary to make was to find a substitute for the term “refugee.” We came up with the idea of using the term “New American,” and implemented this into the tutoring program. I also came up with ideas that could foster relationships between the students and tutors. ROC now plays basketball and other gym games with the students at the Kirundi school, and before each holiday break we organize a party or meal. In the following months after making these changes, I began to see how meaningful it was to the New Americans that the tutors were able to connect to them as friends and peers. Pasco and I now play basketball together, share food, and stay connected on social media. I am now not just a tutor, but a genuine friend.

My involvement in ROC will not stop here; in a country that is struggling in countless ways with its views on refugees, I am determined to continue this kind of work throughout my college years and beyond.