Global Politics

The Struggle for Refugees in New Hampshire

Since 2008, about 650 refugees have arrived in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. They were settled there, courtesy of the US government. But some Manchester officials say it's time to put a stop to that. They're calling for a moratorium on refugee resettlement.

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In a class, provided by the International Institute of New Hampshire, about half a dozen ethnic Nepalese refugees try out some English phrases for a doctor's appointment. The agency helps refugees find jobs, locate apartments and enroll their children in school. William Gillette, who chairs the agency's board, claims refugees are making new lives here. "Under any definition, the refugees are better here, than they were, where they were coming from," he said.

But Manchester Alderman Pat Long disagrees. "You know what, that's a nice sound bite, but I don't accept that," Long said. He said that some refugees in the city are living in terrible conditions. He described the bedroom of one nine-year-old boy he visited. "There was a mural on the wall of blood from bed bugs being squashed. It's lines, there were 200, 500 lines of bed bugs, when he squish it, he would drag it, and there were lines of blood on the guy's wall. It's stuck in my head forever."

Long said Manchester should stop taking in refugees until it's clear that there are adequate resources for them. When refugees arrive, they receive about $1,100 a month in federal assistance for rent, food and household expenses in the first three months. They're also eligible for cash assistance for eight months. After that, much of the aid dries up.

Emile Hakizimana arrived last fall from Burundi with his wife and three children. He said he's struggling to find work in this economy.

Hakizimana said he has a big problem because he doesn't have money, but has bills and rent to pay. When asked about his future, he said he doesn't know where he will be.

Hakizimana's story isn't unusual, said Maggie Fogarty, a refugee advocate with the American Friends Service Committee. "Refugees are being placed into poverty. There are refugees who have been here five, six, seven years and cannot earn their own income to live independently, which is what they want to do. There are refugees who are passing through the school system with their language needs unattended to. We are not doing a good enough job."

But Fogarty doesn't think Manchester should shut the door on refugees.

And neither does Suraj Budathoki, who came to the US three years ago. He said a moratorium would hurt his family. "My parents are still in Nepal. And they are probably coming here in September or October. So do you think I like moratorium? No."

Manchester on its own cannot enforce a moratorium; that authority rests with the State Department. In the last decade, more than a half a dozen cities have called for some kind of resettlement slowdown. And in only two cases did the State Department restrict placement at all.

Lavinia Limon heads the U.S. Committee of Refugees and Immigrants, the agency that oversees the contract to resettle people in Manchester. She said people need to understand the only refugees who are being resettled in the city have family there, so a moratorium doesn't make sense. "We can put those people someplace else. And then they will come there on their own to be with their family. Just like you or I would. So we think it's better to do it initially and have the funds with their resettlement, rather than put them in Indiana and have them show up two weeks later."

Everyone from the State Department on down agrees refugees need more resources to get on their feet. But Limon knows, at a time when Congress is embroiled in a nasty debate on paying off the nation's debt, the refugee issue is way down the totem pole.

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    Signs at the International Institute in Manchester, NH (Photo: Dan Gorenstein)
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    Emile Hakizimana and his three children in Manchester. (Photo: Dan Gorenstein)
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    Manchester Alderman Pat Long in his neighborhood in downtown Manchester. (Photo: Dan Gorenstein)

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