'Spreading Humility' While Learning Remotely During COVID-19
Hussein Amuri was in his junior year at Winooski High School when Vermont schools closed in March. After that happened, and until school ended this month, he spent time on the phone every week helping his peers with their school work.
Digital producer Abagael Giles began reaching out to Chittenden County residents about COVID-19, translation and grassroots solutions in April. Watch for two more stories Wednesday and Thursday, and read the other already published:
“The past couple of days, I’ve been getting calls from friends saying, ‘OK, I need help with Zoom,’”Amuri said during an interview in April. “Sometimes I even help them [directly] with their homework, because for many, especially those who arrived recently, it’s hard to reach their teachers.”
Amuri said the school district was persistent about reaching out to families and students over the course of the spring, but that for many New American families, kids had to be entirely self-directed in their digital, at-home learning.
“I have a lot of work to do right now, and sometimes three or four Zoom meetings in a day, so some students don’t even get my help,” Amuri said in May. “I think that English and the lack of translation that’s been available during the pandemic plays a big role.”
Amuri says many of his friends’ parents are English language learners or have limited experience using computers, often a result of long years spent seeking asylum.
Winooski School District, the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, the Vermont Multilingual Taskforce, Spectrum Youth and Family Services and Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program all offer a wealth of translated information about COVID-19. But Amuri said he found that with classes and other aspects of normal life suddenly remote, day-to-day translation fell often to him and his older brother.
In addition to helping classmates for much of the spring, Amuri served as the family "Zoom technician." He pitched in with any troubleshooting, so his older brother and his mother could work together with his younger brother, a kindergartener, on his schoolwork for about an hour each day.
He has two brothers — one older and one younger. They mostly speak Swahili at their home, and his mother, Rosalie Nibigira, also speaks Kibembe, a Bantu language from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kirundi, one of the official languages of Burundi. Amuri himself speaks English, Swahili and Kirundi.
While his mother, Rosalie, provided the structure and the school offered support, Amuri's older brother, who speaks English, did a lot of the teaching.
Amuri continues to help his family translate the latest information about COVID-19. When his mother lost her two jobs due to COVID-19, Amuri says he and his brother applied for unemployment insurance on her behalf.
Amuri also translates bills, and keeps up with the thrice-weekly information being released by the governor’s office about public health and safety, closures and reopenings.
“It’s no secret that this pandemic has created many challenges for communities like mine to overcome,” Amuri said in April. “There’s information out there about COVID-19, but so much of it is in English or online. My mom and her friends have to talk to each other about what’s going on. Mainly, they know what’s happening, but I don’t think they are caught up with everything. Every two seconds there is something new happening with the pandemic.”
Amuri’s mother, Rosalie, left the Democratic Republic of Congo for Tanzania before he was born. She spent 19 years seeking asylum in the United States, and was finally granted it five years ago.
"After getting screened by the United Nations, the USCIS came to interview us in 2014 through a long process that my mother described as 'terrifying,' mainly because of the tough questions she was asked," he said. A year later, they were finally granted asylum.
“We came here — my mom and brothers and I — in 2015, from Tanzania,” Amuri said. He added that after living for 12 years as refugees in Tanzania, he and his older brother identify strongly with Burundian culture. But after five years in Vermont, it feels like home.
However, he says, “People still treat us like New Americans.”
As permanent residents, he says his family is looking forward to applying for citizenship this fall. As for the home they’ve made in Winooski, Amuri described it as “welcoming, thoughtful and so very caring. We found people were willing to help in any way.”
Amuri said he does often find himself explaining American racism to classmates who recently arrived from African countries.
“For me, it was painful to learn that my ancestors were taken from their homeland and brought here and forced to go through the most inhumane thing a person could experience,” Amuri said. It’s also painful to rehash that.
The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and recent conversation about policing has him doubting his place in Vermont.
“I was talking with my grandpa over the weekend, and he was telling me to be careful because of white supremacists,” he said in early June. “This felt like a warning. You might do all the right things ?— involve yourself in politics, help the people around you ?— but you’ll always be an alien.”
Amuri added that it makes him think, in regards to George Floyd's killing: “Could that have been me?”
Amuri is continuing to do all those “right things,” as the pandemic allows. Right now, he misses his friends and teachers, playing soccer and running track.
“I love school, and I love doing my work,” he said. He loves to write.
But he’s also staying politically engaged. Amuri sits on the City of Winooski’s Charter Council and plans to study government in college. Middlebury College is his top choice.
In May, Amuri spoke with Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe about the challenges of remote learning during the senator’s weekly Facebook Live update, and he’s also calling voters on behalf of Rebecca Holcombe’s gubernatorial campaign.
Amuri is active in the Vermont Youth Lobby, too, and has his sights set on running for public office someday.
“My dream is to someday be in the Vermont Legislature,” he said. “That’s what I’m pushing for.” He’d like to run for governor, too.
In all his activism ?— he’s especially passionate about increasing language accessibility for newcomers and climate change ?— Amuri said he’s inspired by what he hears from Vermont voters, how they are trying to stay loving of themselves and others, and to hold themselves accountable for taking care of their communities.
“Hearing that has inspired me to try to spread humility beyond my own home, to some of my classmates and my school, and in my community in Winooski,” Amuri said. “We’re all doing our best to help each other.”