When Augustin Ntabaganyimana arrived in Concord in March 2000, he no longer faced the threat of bombs exploding around him. There was no longer the sound of gunfire. Essentially, he was safe. But he now faced a new and strange place where everyone drove cars.
“I had a lot of mixed feelings,” said Ntabaganyimana, a former Rwandan refugee who spent six years in a refugee camp. “Finally, a place to call home. But I didn’t speak the language and I knew I needed to find work.... No more bombs, but there was this strange and new environment.”
He laughed remembering that the weather was challenging at first.
It took Ntabaganyimana 24 days to find a job as a machine operator at Bancroft Products in Concord. Lutheran Social Services helped enroll him in English classes — he knew learning English was the key to finding employment, to finding success. The first couple months were filled with appointments, medical screenings, orientations, meeting other refugees.
“I knew employment was the gateway to adjusting,” Ntabaganyimana said, adding that working forced him to develop his English skills. He also benefited from the extra work his English teacher put in with him. She knew his goal was to go to college. She helped him get there. He called her his superstar. “If she hadn’t done that, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” he said.
Ntabaganyimana went on to get his associate degree from NHTI. He also worked part-time at the state hospital, before beginning a career as a caseworker at Lutheran Social Services in 2004. He went back to school in 2007 to get his bachelor’s degree. He’s now pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the University of New Hampshire.
The adjustment was multifaceted. Sure, Ntabaganyimana had to learn the language. He had to adapt to an entirely different environment, a different culture and way of life. In Rwanda, he was used to seeing kids outside playing everywhere. It was loud. People were always outside. He had to get used to the idea that people here hop in cars every day to get to and from work, the grocery store, everywhere.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when it was, but somewhere along his journey Ntabaganyimana thought he had more than just adjusted to life in New Hampshire; he actually had something to contribute.
“It felt like home,” Ntabaganyimana said. “I just felt like anybody else.”
He felt like any other person, refugee or not.
Welcome to America
For those who tend to focus on America’s faults when it comes to international issues, here is a statistic to consider: of the world’s refugees who were permanently resettled, the United States took in more than 70 percent in 2009, according to the UN Refugee Agency. America is a nation of plenty, but it is also plenty willing to share it.
New Hampshire, a state with a relatively small population (1,316,470, according to the 2010 census), has taken in more than 3,500 refugees during the last nine years. These resettlements have primarily taken place in Laconia (282 refugees), Concord (965) and Manchester, which is the largest area for resettlement. In fact, 61 percent or 2,148 of those who’ve resettled have done so in the Queen City, according to information provided by the mayor’s office.
Those numbers do not take into account secondary resettlement. While a refugee may be assigned to Laconia, perhaps he is unable to get a job or find an affordable apartment there and ultimately he moves to another community.
The numbers seem to agree with Mayor Ted Gatsas’ assessment that Manchester has pulled its fair share. There are 13 resettlement communities in New Hampshire, but the last three years only Concord, Laconia and Manchester have taken in refugees. Some of the other communities are small: Boscawen, Haverhill, Warner, Charlestown and Peterborough.
Refugees are settled across the country, with larger states like California and Texas receiving a larger percentage of these new residents, according to the federal office of resettlement.
Nashua was expected to receive many more Rohingya refugees from Burma, according to Amy Marchildon, director of services for new Americans, a division of Lutheran Social Services, but that process has been slower. Marchildon said there are infrastructure concerns in the camps where the Rohingya refugees are currently living. Those Burmese refugees are in camps in Bangladesh and officials there worry that if they release refugees, more will come in, more than they can handle. Lutheran Social Services had expected to receive between 50 and 70 refugees from the Bangladesh camp, but so far they’ve received only seven people.
Concerned that Manchester is falling short in providing the services and resources refugees need, the mayor and board of aldermen have requested a moratorium on refugee resettlement in Manchester. The request was made recently, but refugees and some of the problems they’ve faced in the Queen City have been in the headlines since 2009. That was when bedbugs were discovered in Langdon Mill, which at the time was home to about 60 people, many of them refugees.
Alderman Pat Long said after that incident he and some other officials began looking more closely and found things that needed to be improved. Long said there weren’t any major issues but there was a combination of concerns, ranging from food to housing, that were going unanswered. A committee was formed but its members soon realized to move forward they would need sanction from the city, and so a task force was formed. The task force’s ultimate request has far-reaching implications.
From citizen to refugee to...
A refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons beyond his or her control such as religious beliefs, political thought, social group, etc., according to an official with the U.S. State Department who spoke on condition of anonymity. As a result, the official said, a refugee cannot return home.
On average, refugees live in camps for 17 years, often in abhorrent conditions. Resettlement — starting life in a new country and letting go of plans to return to the old one — is always the last option. The hope is that whatever is causing the oppression in their own country will subside and they will ultimately be able to return. Just 1 percent of the world’s refugee population ever gets resettled, Marchildon said.
There are 11 national agencies that work through the resettlement process. Two of them are in New Hampshire: Lutheran Social Services, which handles a lot of resettlements within a 50-mile radius of its home office in Concord, and the International Institute of New Hampshire, which resettles most of the newly arriving refugees in Manchester.
The formal refugee resettlement program began in 1980 after the Vietnam War. Each year, Congress sets projections for how many refugees the country will take in. That process for the 2011-2012 cycle will begin soon. Lawmakers will set projections probably in October. From there, the projections would require President Barack Obama’s signature.
Lutheran Social Services doesn’t receive extensive information on refugees it is to receive — just each person’s name, ethnicity, education, health issues, and family members.
Resettlement agencies typically get about two weeks’ notice on arrivals. During that time, workers and volunteers are procuring housing, furnishings — the bare essentials. They’ll pick up incoming refugees at the airport. During their first 30 days, refugees get what Marchildon called “core services”: applying for a social security card, getting medical checkups and screenings, learning how to get to the grocery store, applying for any benefits, such as welfare, they might be eligible for, enrolling in English classes. There is a series of orientations. After the first month, the federal government steps in with a matching grant program, which is an alternative to welfare. If six months after a refugee arrives he still doesn’t have a job — and he must take the first job that is offered to him — the refugee is referred to the Department of Health and Human Services. Cash assistance runs for eight months, Marchildon said.
Services are front-loaded, with the emphasis on early self-sufficiency, though with the economic downturn, that’s more challenging. Refugees are heading in two career tracks for the most part: health care and hospitality. Agencies partner with employers to offer classes and training in things like basic housekeeping. That type of partnership is leading to better employment outcomes, Marchildon said.
Most refugees coming to New Hampshire today are Bhutanese. Bhutanese refugees have tended to arrive in clusters. Marchildon said she’s expecting Bhutanese refugees, who are coming from Nepal, to continue to arrive for another two or three years.
How long someone spends in a camp may help determine how well he or she will do in acclimating to the U.S. If the average wait is 17 years, a refugee can miss his entire childhood.
“They had no life whatsoever,” said Cathy Chesley, director of immigration and refugee services at New Hampshire Catholic Charities. “For the young ones, that’s all they knew.”
“Their whole lives depend on aid organizations keeping them alive,” Marchildon said. “It’s a shift. There are a lot of things to figure out.”
There is a mixture of emotions for refugees arriving. There’s a certain euphoria about leaving a camp and then heading to the U.S., though Marchildon said some have a Hollywood idea of what the country is like. Many have survivor’s guilt. Iraqi refugees, particularly ones who helped the U.S. military as guides or interpreters, may feel the U.S. owes them.
Refugees have a variety of backgrounds. Some have no prior work experience, while others have had established and successful careers. It’s frustrating for both. Highly educated refugees may be frustrated they can’t immediately pick their careers back up again, Marchildon said.
The issues facing refugees today are the same Ntabaganyimana faced when he arrived. The only difference is that the job market has dwindled and there are fewer manufacturing jobs in particular. The lack of jobs can be perceived as a sign that the community isn’t welcoming, said Honore Murenzi, program director for the Concord-based advocacy group New American Africans.
The closing of the Jac Pac Meat Packing Plant in Manchester left a big hole on the job front for refugees. Obviously, this is a problem affecting many American households, not just refugees. But for refugees the big adjustments — the language, getting kids enrolled in school, figuring out what school is all about, the culture — are also still there.
“Any refugee is going to face that,” Ntabaganyimana said. “There’s no way you can be totally prepared.”
Some feel like going to America is going to be like going to heaven. And then when they get here, the reality doesn’t match up with the vision in their heads, Murenzi said.
Coming from refugee camps, refugees often have more than just a language barrier to deal with. Working the heater, the stove, any appliances — that’s entirely foreign. Simply understanding what to do with money is a new concept. Murenzi said many don’t comprehend how to save money, how to budget and how to prioritize payments.
Further, when refugees arrive in New Hampshire, they’re probably in shock at first due to the newness of the situation. That’s when they’re getting a lot of the basic information about living in this country, and that’s when they’re probably least able to absorb it in any useful way.
“So they learn by making mistakes,” Murenzi said.
The quality of donations can play a role as well. If refugees are given used furniture and clothing, and sometimes items that are slightly broken, it can be perceived as though they aren’t being valued as people. Refugees won’t speak up if they’re given items in poor condition, but it can, once again, contribute to their feeling unwelcome. In African cultures, when people give something to another person, it’s a sacrifice of some kind. The item is something the giver likes and appreciates, and the fact that he is giving it to another shows how he values the recipient. In the United States, people often given away items they would otherwise throw out. Murenzi explained that as a cultural difference.
Murenzi once visited an African refugee to find that he had 12 winter coats that had been given to him. During the visit, another woman stopped by to drop off another winter coat. The relationship is the most important thing, and so the individual wouldn’t say he had enough coats, for fear of damaging the relationship, Murenzi said.
Looking around, Gatsas and other officials believed the city was falling short.
“It just challenges us,” Chesley said. “We can do better. A lot of times it’s not the money. Sometimes it’s just thinking critically about how we can do a better job working together.”
That is why in June 2010 the Manchester Task Force on Immigrant and Refugee Resettlement was founded. This group would take more than a year to investigate the situation and ultimately make recommendations.
The group found, unsurprisingly, that some refugees were flourishing while others were slipping through the cracks. Such a situation is not limited to refugees. Collect 100 Americans and a similar bell curve will probably develop. The study also found that these failures to assimilate were not limited to one culture. They reverberated through each community, which echoed a larger problem.
The task force looked at five areas: housing, education, basic needs (besides housing), community welcoming and volunteer agency status. In its report, the task force listed current successes, ideas for future improvements, and barriers.
Alderman Long is chairman of that task force. Long knows more members of the refugee community than most. As the business manager for the Ironworkers Union, he received calls from Bosnian refugees in 1997. Later as the vice president of the Building Trades Union, he took in more than 100 Bosnian refugees as employees.
“They were awesome workers,” Long said. “In some cases, they were even better than the union guys.”
Ntabaganyimana said he isn’t sure there are fewer jobs now, but he thinks there are fewer jobs that don’t require workers to be immediately fluent in English. Hospitals and hotels offer plenty of employment opportunities, but new workers have to be able to speak English, Ntabaganyimana said.
“They work hard,” Chesley said. “They make lower wages than anybody would consider.”
“They’re not looking for handouts,” Chesley continued. “Many are embarrassed to take what they didn’t have in their own country.”
Long said on the job site the cultural divide vanished. They were all workers with a job to be done. It was a job the refugees took seriously.
“In our business it is all about tonnage,” Long said. “We get paid by how many tons we produce daily. Most of us would go home and not think about work. But the Bosnians would leave work and brag about how much tonnage they did that day. They took great pride in their work.”
But Bosnian refugees had an advantage, according to Long, who touched upon an issue often expressed by many. Their educational backgrounds were more similar to those of workers from the United States.
“This made their assimilation quite a bit easier,” Long said.
Long believes that assimilation is not happening today but he does not blame that failure on the refugees. He said the city of Manchester does not have a good read on the situation. For example, one of the most critical aspects for any new arrival to Manchester — and one of the greatest hurdles — is mastery of the English language.
In a perfect world, one school would teach beginners, another intermediate learners and a third experts. But as it is, many of these classes are mixed, which can slow down advanced learners or leave behind beginners. That is not taking into consideration the different ways people from different cultures learn. Long noted that someone from Africa may learn completely differently than someone from Bhutan. If the teaching styles aren’t adapted, eager students can end up left behind.
In Manchester alone, there are six adult language schools cited in the task force report: St. Anne & St. Augustine, English for New Americans, Manchester Adult Learning Center, Holy Cross Family Learning Center, Eileen Phinney Multicultural Center and the International Institute. That is not to mention the work being done by colleges and universities. For example, Saint Anselm College has 160 students working with refugee/immigrant-specific agencies. School-aged refugees have access to English Learners Programs within the school district during both the school year and the summer time. Of course, these new refugees are often asked to take American standardized tests almost immediately after arriving, which has contributed to city schools’ ranking in the bottom portion of state test scores. That is why Gatsas and Superintendent Tom Brennan asked the state Department of Education to give Manchester students learning English as a second language a waiver from a standardized test during their first two years in the district. Long called it common sense but said nobody allowed the waiver.
To support these much needed services, Long said the city is able to allocate money, say $100,000, from Community Investment Program (CIP) funds. However, since little is known about the effectiveness of these schools, Long said officials don’t know what is the most efficient way to spend that money.
“Should we give $20,000 to each of the language centers or just give $100,000 to the best?” Long said.
He said something needs to be done. At a recent meeting at City Hall, Long said it was clear that even three to four years after resettlement some refugees still couldn’t speak English.
Burden of dependency
This results in a change in the family dynamic. In a testament to the work being done in the public schools, many refugee children are thriving. However, because they are able to understand the world around them more clearly, their parents begin to depend on them for information about rent, groceries, bills, etc. They run the show, according to Long. This has led many refugee children to mature way past their years and yet they are still children — children who need help with their homework. That’s help their parents often cannot provide.
Refugees, according to Long, were often easy prey for predatory landlords. First off, refugees are grateful. They became refugees because they witnessed or experienced an atrocity that is probably difficult for most Americans to even fathom. So when they arrive in Manchester and no longer have to fear murder, disease or starvation, suddenly a leaky faucet or broken window doesn’t seem so bad. Long said during his research he found refugees would accept substandard living conditions, if the rent was cheap.
“They have the right to live in a healthy environment,” Long said. “There is no need for them to come here and suffer. They have suffered enough.”
But many are hesitant to act. Often in their native lands, police officers and public officials were corrupt, equally likely to jail or kill you as they were to help. Naturally, this breeds wariness. But there’s another reason the refugees don’t speak up. Long also said that after five years refugees can apply for citizenship as long as they have displayed impeccable behavior — one complaint against them can derail the process. This is why few are willing to make a peep, so that it is not misheard as a roar. Long once asked a refugee who was being abused by a landlord to come picket outside the landlord’s office. But the refugee refused, not wanting to jeopardize his citizenship opportunity.
There are certain elements of daily life — ones natives navigate without a moment’s thought — that can fall through the cracks. Long said he once entered an apartment in the dead of winter and found the heat was cranked to full blast, yet the windows were open.
“They didn’t know you could lower the heat,” Long said. And why would they? In some of their homes, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the average yearly temperature is around 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Long said he began getting calls daily to address issues like this.
“I was simply putting out fires,” Long said.
In an effort to muffle the flame, the task force was created. The result was the proposed moratorium.
A call for a moratorium
On July 5, at a regular meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen, the board voted 9-4 to request a moratorium on refugee resettlement in Manchester. In a letter to the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Gatsas cited a need to “catch up” as the reason for the request.
However, within that vote there seems to be a gray area to what the moratorium would include. Long was adamant that it would be a structured moratorium that would still allow for family re-unification. He did say, however, that cultural differences can lead to a wide gap in what is considered “family.” He said in some cultures, any member of the village, say for example, the barber, would be considered “family,” while in America we think of family members as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and so on.
The family unit is the most critical social unit worldwide, and it is particularly strong in refugee communities. When the conversation centers on a moratorium and agencies are still striving for family reunification, Chesley said, from Catholic Charities’ perspective, which focuses on family reunification in particular, it’s difficult to say stop it.
Gatsas, however, said in an interview he believed that since the system is broken, it wouldn’t be of service to anyone to bring in additional people even if they are family. His thought was that if a family is out of work and on welfare and unable to take care of themselves properly, how would they be able to take care of the grandparents if they then come into the picture. That is why he was hoping for a two-year moratorium in which the city could get its arms around the problem and then re-evaluate how many refugees the city could handle. He wanted to provide refugees with the best chance to succeed.
Murenzi said there needs to be more communication between agencies and organizations — the mayor, resettlement agencies, refugees, and the community at large. Right now, Murenzi said, each entity does what it thinks is right, but they aren’t on the same page.
“They all need to sit down [together],” Murenzi said.
Looking at housing and jobs in Manchester, Murenzi said Gatsas is right to be concerned about the city’s taking in more refugees.
“But does he have a plan to resolve the problem?” Murenzi said. “And who is going to execute that plan? Does he talk to the International Institute? Or, do they talk to him?”
Gatsas said he is not requesting a reprieve from refugee resettlement because he has any animosity toward refugees. He believes the city is failing these refugees and he wants to solve the problem. And he is not wasting time to find solutions. The city has purchased and is currently renovating the Odd Fellows building on Lake Avenue.
Gatsas hopes to consolidate many of the organizations that assist in resettlement into this one central area (the Odd Fellows building), creating a sort of one-stop shopping for refugees. That way refugees can go there (the building is reachable by public transportation) and have many, if not all, of their questions answered. In the building would be information about health, housing, language studies, etc. Not only would it be easier for the refugees, but it would cut down on administrative costs for these organizations (one copier, one receptionist, instead of several) so there would be more CIP funds available to go directly to the refugees. Long went a step further and said they hoped to hire a refugee coordinator who could oversee the process.
Role of the city
Historically, cities have played a supporting role in the refugee resettlement process. Traditionally the State Department makes its assessments based on recommendations by Volunteer (or resettlement) Agencies, which in New Hampshire are Lutheran Social Services and the International Institute of New Hampshire.
In fact, it is the Volunteer Agencies, not the city, that decide how many refugees are brought in. Gatsas said previous mayors didn’t know the city had an opportunity to weigh in on refugees coming into the community.
According to its FY 2012 Affiliates/Sub-office Abstract, the IINH’s rationale for requesting so many refugees to Manchester is the city’s size (it’s the largest city in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine), low unemployment and resources.
As part of its assessment for deciding how many refugees to request for the city, the IINH is supposed to seek input from a variety of sources including health officials, school officials, State Refugee Coordinator Barbara Seebart and, as the State Department official put it, the mayor.
Gatsas and task force members felt that such communication wasn’t happening. In the report, they wrote, “Until recently, there has been a reluctance by the Volunteer Agencies to communicate openly with the City of Manchester. As a result, the City is often not prepared to provide services for new arrivals due to the lack of upfront knowledge of dates, numbers, ages and any specifics.”
Former Manchester mayor Robert Baines said during his tenure in office he would not only meet with members of the business community, many of whom employed refugees, but he would also spend considerable time at the International Institute of New Hampshire.
“I never had any surprises,” Baines said.
In Concord, At-Large City Councilor Stephen Shurtleff said there have been some problems along the way, as acclimation can be difficult for anyone, but the pluses far outweigh the negatives. He said Lutheran Social Services and a variety of other non-profit organizations are doing an excellent job. While services could always be improved, he said there was no discussion of a moratorium in Concord. Neither has there been such a call in Laconia, according to Adam Drapcho, a staff writer for the Laconia Daily Sun. Drapcho said the issue of refugee resettlement has been the focus of political tension but it has never come to a boiling point. In fact, Drapcho was researching a story on the state of Laconia refugees and found they were doing quite well and most were financially stable. At least one member of each family had found employment and Drapcho said those who hadn’t have moved away. Drapcho cautiously proclaimed the situation a success.
Long did admit the agencies only know specifics of who’s coming — how many adults, children, etc. — a week in advance, but he did say they know how many refugees are coming in total and how many from each country. He said if the city had that information it would be helpful.
The report described something more than simple miscommunication, however. It read, “For many years, the IINH has not gained the confidence and trust of the City of Manchester.”
For its part, the International Institute of New England, which oversees the New Hampshire office, is remaining silent.
Carolyn Benedict-Drew, executive director of the International Institute of New England, which has offices in Boston, Lowell and Manchester, said negotiations were now going on between the City of Manchester and the U.S. Department of State and as a result she felt it was not right to comment on the issue.
Chesley said she doesn’t understand what happened to the report from the mayor’s task force. It contained a number of recommendations and she isn’t seeing those addressed by asking for a moratorium.
“Maybe our city can be a part of helping make a better life for people,” Chesley said. She pointed to Lewiston, Maine, where the community came out in force in support of more diversity and recognizing the worldwide humanitarian challenge.
Chesley was working on one case where a mother had to leave her 4-year-old son behind and it has taken five years to get the OK for reunification.
“We can’t imagine being separated from our family,” Chesley said. “But you just have to get up and go. You can imagine the worry, being halfway across the world, leaving your elderly parents in a camp, which are not the best places but offer peace and security, in spite of the war … or ethnic cleansing people are fleeing from.”
Chesley isn’t oblivious to the challenges. She said she knows things can be done better.
“But to say no now, that’s not eliminating the problem,” Chesley said. “Really, ultimately you have to work on solutions.”
The moratorium question itself is uncommon. In fact, according to the State Department official, while conversations take place frequently, there have only been two such official requests in recent memory.
The two previous requests, from Detroit, Mich., and Ft. Wayne, Ind., involved “restrictions” and neither entirely eliminated refugee resettlement. There was no record of the State Department’s granting a moratorium.
In Detroit and Fort Wayne, the restrictions did clarify the definition of “family” but allowed for reunification under those stricter guidelines.
“Effective with allocations beginning April 29, 2009, refugee placement in Ft. Wayne, Indiana will be restricted to resettlement preferences with the following relationships: spouse, father, mother, sibling, child, grandparent. Other relationships may be accepted if the principal applicant is a child under the age of 18 with no relatives in the United States,” according to a letter from the State Department.
The official did say there was already a restriction of sorts in Manchester, as the primary resettlement has been family reunifications. However, the official said there were discussions about continuing to narrow the definition of family members. A group of officials from Washington, D.C., came to Manchester and met with the mayor, other elected officials and service providers. The officials will take all of those conversations into account when making a decision on the issue, which should be expected later this fall.
However unusual, such a request isn’t unprecedented. In fact, former mayor Baines quietly enacted a short-term moratorium when he was in office, asking Lutheran Social Services, which Baines said was resettling refugees without proper notification to schools, health officials, etc., to stop resettling in Manchester. Baines did not involve the State Department in his request and instead worked through state agencies, Governor Craig Benson’s office and Lutheran Social Services. Nasir Arush, a former member of the Somali Development Center in Manchester who recently moved to Minnesota, said that moratorium in 2004 didn’t work and he believed today’s would not either.
“With a moratorium there is no assurance that anything will change,” Arush said.
Arush is not alone in his opinion. There are many who believe the problems occurring in the city — and everyone noted things could improve — could be solved without as drastic a step as a moratorium.
“New Hampshire is a welcoming state,” Ntabaganyimana said. “A lot of people are proud to call this state home. I don’t think we should ruin that perception.”
“I understand why they are against the moratorium,” Long said. “They feel like it is stopping them from getting an opportunity. But we’ve weighed both sides and want to give them the best chance to succeed.”
And there are refugees who believe the moratorium is needed. Izet Hamidovic of the Association of Bosnians said when he came 11 years ago, everything he was told wasn’t necessarily true. Hamidovic said he was promised everything but given very little when he arrived. He said while some refugees are struggling there are many others, who aren’t refugees, in Manchester who are struggling as well. Hamidovic said they read stories about refugees and wonder if anyone cares about their situation.
“Maybe we should stop for now,” Hamidovic said, adding there are no jobs for capable English-speaking people as it is.
The moratorium discussion could raise doubts as to just how welcomed refugees are. That’s an important message, Ntabaganyimana said. He’s an adult who works within the resettlement system now, and so he understands the politics that are involved with refugees and the moratorium discussion. But he wonders if a high school-aged refugee understands as much. Others might think it’s sending the wrong message, he says.
“You represent us too,” Ntabaganyimana said of elected officials.
For all that is being said and written about refugees now, Ntabaganyimana said he can’t imagine a more welcoming community.
“A lot of people wanted to help,” he said.
Ntabaganyimana doesn’t think the moratorium talk is representative of New Hampshire’s true attitude toward refugees. He points to how helpful people are, New Hampshire’s low unemployment rate, and perhaps notably, New Hampshire’s status as a particularly safe state. After all, what refugees are looking for first of all isn’t food, clothing or shelter; it’s safety. Arush seconded this notion, saying there are many individuals working very hard to make Manchester home for refugees.
“They come here to rebuild their lives,” Ntabaganyimana said. “The program is geared toward saving lives.”
Many feared that if the 300 refugees didn’t come to Manchester that would mean 300 people would stay in refugee camps. Long disagreed with that assessment, saying the United States would send them to a different, better equipped, city.
There are risks with a moratorium, according to Arush. For one, if a refugee is sent someplace other than Manchester, that individual is probably still going to come to the Queen City if he or she has family here. The problem then is that that person would come to Manchester but wouldn’t have access to government resources, since resources are funneled to resettlement communities. Those refugees would then present a greater burden on local agencies, Marchildon said.
“It’s possible they’d come to New Hampshire anyway, but that federal assistance wouldn’t follow them,” Marchildon said.
This type of secondary resettlement makes keeping tabs on people even more difficult.
On the education front
Refugees and immigrants can be scapegoated in the Manchester school system in particular.
“I think there are deep-seeded systemic problems that affect all students,” said Kathy Staub, an education activist in Manchester. “There are lots of different things that cause problems with student achievement.”
While refugees and immigrants are often pointed to in discussions of Manchester’s poor showings on standardized tests, there appears to be more to the story. Across the board, regardless of race and ethnicity, Manchester students don’t score well compared to the state average.
Testing, even of refugee students who clearly aren’t going to do well, does provide a baseline for education officials. Staub said the Manchester school district is getting better every year and has made significant progress in helping kids adapt to the school system.
Even though some refugees might not have had any schooling, even at the age of 18, they’re plopped down in the age-appropriate grade. They’re not going to benefit from that. There are after-school programs but Murenzi said it’s sometimes a struggle to get students to understand the concept of sitting down and studying or reading. Growing up, many students didn’t have their parents reading or pushing education — that wasn’t the culture. They often didn’t have role models helping them understand the importance of reading and school work. New American Africans is developing a mentoring program that does just that.
“Children need programs to catch up,” Murenzi said. “They don’t need to go play soccer. That just reinforces a weakness.”
Murenzi wasn’t suggesting organized sports were bad; it’s just that many African children have grown up playing soccer and other sports but not learning in a classroom. That’s where they need more work to get up to speed, he said.
Parents want to be supportive of schooling, but they often don’t know how. Subsequently, teachers can write off parents as not caring when those parents don’t communicate with teachers. But it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know how to communicate with the teachers, said Dana Leeper, an Americorps VISTA volunteer with New American Africans.
“They’re supportive. They want their kids to achieve,” Leeper said. “They just don’t know what to do.”
Refugees can’t be just lumped together. There’s no clear-cut way to deal with refugees in the school system because they’re not all coming from the same place, educationally speaking. Somali refugees coming a few years ago had been prevented from obtaining any kind of education for years and so, arriving in this state, they had no education baseline. Conversely, Bhutanese refugees tend to have much higher levels of education. Plenty of refugees come with a strong base of education but simply don’t speak English, Staub said.
A positive focus
“For us, it’s a double-edged sword,” said New Hampshire Catholic Charities’ Chesley. “The conditions they’re leaving are abhorrent. We couldn’t imagine any of us living in those kinds of conditions. It’s inhumane. But when the refugees come to New Hampshire, we witness the difficulty, the challenge. We also witness the evolution of a refugee’s life. The first few months here, they’re struggling. But there are so many wonderful examples of success by many, many, many refugees. So we understand both sides.”
There are many who realize just how much these refugees are bringing to the city. Baines said the city has long been a welcoming community for immigrants and much of it was built upon their hard work. He listed success stories, such as Freed’s Bakery, which has boomed as a business thanks to the help of refugees.
Ntabaganyimana is one example of refugees’ giving back. He serves on a variety of community boards and organizations.
The focus is always on challenges facing refugees or how refugees are impacting services. Ntabaganyimana would like a little more emphasis on the benefits of refugees and their successes. Sure, he says, there is an upfront investment in the refugees. But once they’re settled and acclimated, they’re contributing to the fabric of a community just like everyone else.
Manchester’s history is tied closely to immigrants: “That’s the history of the city,” Ntabaganyimana said.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize the changing weather patterns around the world,” Chesley said. “People have been migrating around the world since Adam and Eve. That’s not new to New Hampshire. It’s not new to Manchester. The faces just look different and the colors are darker than the French Canadians or the Irish or the Polish, but the issues are still pretty much the same.”
Refugees are working, and they are paying taxes. Ntabaganyimana guesses the refugees who are working are probably outweighing any impact that comes from refugees who aren’t able to find work quickly.
“The point is they are contributing,” Ntabaganyimana said. “A few might take longer to get a job but it’s not like they don’t want to. We just might need to give them a little more support to get them where they need to be.”
Brendan Gillett is a student at Pomona College in California. He spent a great deal of time immersed in the refugee community while he filmed his documentary, Our Community. Gillett, whose father, Bill, is the chairman of the board at the International Institute of New England, suggested implementing a program that would spread responsibility and include not just resettlement organizations but also the general public. He suggested establishing a family sponsorship program in which a native New Hampshire family could work with and provide help (rides to appointments, the grocery store, etc.) to a newly arrived family.
“This would be tremendously helpful for everyone,” Gillett said. “Obviously for the new refugees but for the other families as well. They’d learn so much.”
And that mutual benefit is something Baines wants to make sure no one forgets.
“What I heard from the business community [Baines met with them when he was mayor] was that many of these businesses wouldn’t have been able to grow or even stay in Manchester without these refugees,” Baines said.
He said he understood Gatsas’ concerns but wished he hadn’t expressed them so publicly. Baines worried that, with this story playing itself out on editorial pages, people may look negatively upon refugees.
Is there any potential for some kind of lashing out against refugees spurred by the talk of a moratorium? Chesley didn’t think so.
“I think anyone who knows and understands how refugees come to be refugees will never cause a backlash on refugees,” Chesley said. “They have to leave where they are or they’re facing death or starvation. They have no control over where they are assigned.”
In the classroom
It is in the classrooms and in after-school programs like Bring It! (Bringing Refugees, Immigrants and Neighbors Gently Into Tomorrow, a program focused on soccer, dance and the arts) where refugees’ assimilation and vibrancy are most apparent. According to the task force’s report, 33 percent of the Manchester school district’s students are students of color and 62 languages are spoken within the district.
“For me personally, my involvement has been amazing,” said Jodi Harper, program coordinator. “I grew up in a small, rural farm in Michigan and now I experience the food, music and traditions of people from all over the world.”
Harper said relationships take time to form but once they do they can last a lifetime. She said working with these kids, who have survived so much, is truly inspiring. And it is in their stories that we see how far they have come. Having worked in this capacity for more than four years, Harper has seen kids who started with her as freshmen go on and graduate. At the 2011 Central High School graduation, New Hampshire’s funniest son, Adam Sandler, spoke to the students. The evolution had come full circle.
“Some of these kids went from living in war to meeting a movie star,” Harper said.
Only in America.