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'We Don't Not Pick Up The Phone': Working As A Community Liaison In A Pandemic

Tul Niroula looks past an image of a Nagas, or a snake, in a window
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Home School Liaison Tul Niroula looks past an image of a Nagas, posted in a window of his Burlington home in early May, in honor of the Nepali festival Nag Panchami. During the pandemic, he's been working remotely as an interpreter for Winooski schools.

Normally, being a community liaison means you do a variety of things. One day you’re working in a classroom, the next in someone’s home. Another at a school board meeting. But since the pandemic started, and the need for interpretive services for families with school-aged children grew, translators and interpreters have been forced to work remotely. 

Digital producer Abagael Giles began reaching out to Chittenden County residents about COVID-19, translation and grassroots solutions in April. Watch for three more stories throughout the week.

Burlington resident Tul Niroula has spent the last seven years working as one of six Home School Liaisons for the Winooski School District. Under normal circumstances, he offers translation and interpretive services for Bhutanese-Nepali families and students around school activities, homework and education, and he does the same for teachers and staff who don’t come from Nepal or speak Nepali.

In addition to English, he speaks Hindi, Dzongkha and Nepali (he primarily works in English and Nepali), and though he does a lot of translation and interpretive work, he’s paid to serve as a cultural broker.

And throughout the pandemic, he’s been taking a lot of calls.

“At first, we had some healthcare workers and people working as cleaners who were afraid to go to work," Niroula said. "Now, people want to get back. They want to know: How will I pay my rent? When will there be a vaccine?” 

Off the clock, Niroula also helps people register for unemployment, 3Squares Vermont (formerly known as food stamps), and he’s been activating EBT cards for people seeking food assistance for the first time.

Tul Niroula stands in front of his Burlington home.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
As a Home School Liaison for the Winooski School District, Tul Niroula serves as a cultural and linguistic broker between Bhutanese-Nepali families and school staff.

Through his work with the school, he’s also relaying information to parents of students, with the help of the Vermont Multilingual Taskforce, about new free testing for COVID-19 at the O’Brien Center in Winooski.

“People have pretty good information,” he said, adding that where there are gaps, community members are helping each other. 

A go-between

Niroula, who is Bhutanese, said that many newcomers in the Bhutanese-Nepali community have cultural trauma that stems from past relationships with the Bhutanese government. 

“Most of our families have been settled here for some time, so speaking English is less of a concern,” he said. But, for example, he said, there are people who came to Winooski who were made to flee their homes in Bhutan because government officials seized their land in retaliation for voting a particular way. Some were expelled from Bhutan because of their ethnicity, or their language.

“People went from having million-dollar properties, to having nothing, overnight,” he said.

"If parents have questions, whether it's on a Sunday, a Monday or a holiday, they call... We don't not pick up the phone." ?— Tul Niroula, Community Liaison for Winooski Schools

Niroula added: “In our community, we sometimes see that people don’t go to the city to get the help they need. I even know one parent who is a citizen, but who won’t vote because they don’t believe they really have the right to do so safely."

He continued: "How do we bring parents and community members to the city if they have questions? It’s a lot easier to go to those institutions if you can talk to someone who looks like you, who you know, who’s part of your community.”

During the 21 years Niroula spent living in Goldhap, a refugee camp in Nepal, he helped to establish a K-10 school that taught courses in Nepali, Dzonkha and English to refugee students. He taught math for 19 years in Nepal before coming to the United States.

Now he helps parents and students adjust to a new and different education system, and throughout the coronavirus pandemic, he’s been communicating as frequently as he can with the 145 or so students on his caseload and their families.

For the school district, he pre-records updates and alerts in Nepali to send out to parents’ voicemails. He sits in on Zoom calls and conferences with teachers, and he tries to check in with each family every day.

And yet, he says, "It just takes longer than it normally does."

Once an uncle, always an uncle

Niroula was doing this kind of work long before the pandemic started, and he says many of his students from his time in Nepal have since grown up and had children of their own ?— some of them students in the Winooski schools.

“In our culture, we attach religious significance to relationships,” Niroula said. "People call me ‘????,’ which means ‘uncle’ in Nepali.”

He’s accompanied former students to buy their first cars and homes, and gone with them to the hospital. When parents struggle with an unruly teenager, Niroula is the person they call for advice.

Winooski High School entrance
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Signs above the doors at Winooski High School welcome students in a few of the 18 languages spoken by kids enrolled within the district. In addition to working directly with students and their families, Home School Liaisons teach school staff and teachers about the communities they serve and are part of.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Niroula worked 40 hours a week for the school district, and 20 hours a week at the Howard Center.

The latter job has since lapsed, and until early June, Niroula was waiting to hear if, just like he has for the last seven years, he would be laid off from the Winooski School District on June 15 for the summer. 

Niroula said that typically, they are only paid to work while school is in session.

But that doesn’t mean the calls stop coming.

“If parents have questions, whether it’s on a Sunday, a Monday or a holiday, they call,” Niroula said. “During those two and a half months [of a typical summer], parents still call. We don’t not pick up the phone.”

This year, the school district plans to keep all community liaisons on through the summer. Niroula said he hopes year-round employment will be something the district can implement into the future.

“If we [community liaisons] still work for the community, we’ll need to be paid," he said. "But if not? We’ll volunteer. We will still work.”

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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