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Mares: Swimming Safety

Two refugee youths from Africa drowned recently in separate accidents in Burlington. One was Ali Muhina from Somalia, the other Christian Kibabu of the Republic of Congo.

Their families said little publicly, but fellow students and teachers recalled Ali as being "kind, gentle and supportive." Christian was said to be much respected at school, transcending cliques and bringing people together.

The community has responded to these tragedies by reviewing swimming and safety programs for New Americans. For many immigrant children, swimming is a novelty. Some come from countries where crocodiles discourage water activity, and others have left desert countries like Somalia where there’s almost no water at all.

One program designed to teach water safety to low-income and new American families, is the Burlington YMCA’s Camp Splash. CEO Kyle Dodson hopes that Ali and Christian's deaths will remind people that swimming isn’t simply a recreational pursuit. "Swimming and water safety,” he says,” are essential life skills."

The boys’ deaths ripped holes in three communities – that of their own families, the larger Chittenden county refugee community and among their classmates at Winooski and Burlington schools. They also reminded me of a vacancy made in my own life, sixty years ago to the day of Christian's death.

I’d been working on a construction job when news came that one of my brothers had drowned in a community swimming pool where he’d worked as a lifeguard. When I got to the pool, I could only stare in disbelief at my brother' lifeless body on the edge of the pool.

My elder brother was out of the country, so for the rest of the summer, I tried imperfectly, haltingly, to be two sons. I was torn between my own loneliness and wanting to make up for my parents' loss. A few high-school friends tried to comfort me, but we were awkward with each other.

In her grief, my mother would turn a book about my brother into quite an interesting family history of the World War Two years and after.

Then together, my parents took the money they had saved for my brother's college education and did something quite extraordinary in his memory that still comforts me today – perhaps especially today – because they used it to send a Hungarian refugee through engineering school.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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