Close to 3000 refugees have arrived in Manchester in the last decade, many from the war-torn regions of Somalia, Sudan and Iraq. Another 200 are expected to arrive in the city this fall.
And while they’ve escaped oppression, their transition to a free life in northern New England’s largest city hasn’t always been easy. They’ve had to overcome language barriers, an uncertain job market, and the shock of cold winters.
And they’ve needed to get comfortable with the law enforcers who patrol the city – because they’re not like the police they knew back home.
That's been the case for Kamul Basnet. He's originally from Bhutan and now works for the state, helping refugees.
"I leave my country when I was eight years old. I came to Nepal as a refugee. I resettled there in refugee camp for 17 years. Then after, the United Nations agency provided resettlement options. So we opted to resettle in United States."
Basnet arrived in Manchester on a warm spring day in 2008.
He remembers that one of his first encounters with Queen City officials was at the police department, which he says, like many refugees, scared him.
"Back in Bhutan and Nepal, they are afraid with police officer. If you speak towards them, they will be arrested. At the beginning, when I come to New Hampshire, I felt in that way as well. Because back in our country, the police start punishing or using physical violence, or physical torture."
Basnet is one of 2500 Bhutanese who resettled in New Hampshire and had to relearn what police were all about.
Captain Richard Reilly is with the Manchester Police. He says the cultural education Basnet received isn’t just for refugees.
"It’s equally important that our officers understand that from the countries where they come from, the police behave very differently, and that causes certain nuances to occur in behavior that they need to be aware of, and that we talk freely about it at the police department, and in recruit training, new hire training."
The police also collaborate with resettlement agencies, like the International Institute of New England in Manchester.
Nasir Arush is the Institute’s director. He says new arrivals have no reason to trust police. How to reverse that instinct? He invites the police to speak with his clients.
"They talk about the laws in this country. How to interact with police, if, for example, they are stopped for a traffic violation. Talk about issues about domestic violence. How to avoid that type of thing. How to communicate."
Arush attends monthly advisory board meetings at the police station, with other refugee leaders, including youth organizers.
Captain Reilly says over the last five years the meetings have brought several issues to the forefront.
For example, one is the cultural conflict — not between new refugees and longtime residents — but between the refugee parents who don’t speak English and their children who’ve more easily assimilated.
"Dad tries to say I want you in by 7. Oh, no way, dad, I’ve been told I’m free to do whatever I want, you’re not going to do that to me, and if you do, I’m going to call the police on you. And the father will actually intimidate the father because he knows how the police are in his country of origin."
Reilly says some children actually do go through with the threat, and call the police.
"When an officer responds to a kid who has made a 9-1-1 call about a beating by his parents. When the officer responds and there’s simply no evidence and they talk with the parents thru a translator if necessary – we’re an experienced department and we understand when someone may not be as truthful."
Like many of the refugees in Manchester, Rashida Mohamed is originally from Sudan. She now works as a victims' advocate with the police department. She says in Sudan, there is no 911 service and calling the police tends to be a last resort.
"I have so many women that will come and talk to me and they are in an abusive relationship; however, they don’t want to take legal action."
Mohamed says that means domestic violence is often under-reported in the refugee community.
"Abuse has a lot of layers with it. Shame is a big one. Nobody wants to say my partner or husband, the one I came with, is mistreating her, or him sometimes. And also, the community is so close to each other."
Reporting abuse is a difficult choice for any victim. And it’s not simply a refugee problem.
But refugee women, says Mohamed, are seeking asylum from a country that’s no longer safe. So they’re afraid of losing the only support they have.
"Most women think that since they came here with their partners, their status is connected to him. And they are threatened by, OK, you want to do anything about it, I’m going to divorce you, you have to go back, and so on."
For police, like Captain Reilly, responding to various cultures is less of a challenge when the officers are also from diverse backgrounds.
"A department should reflect the community in which it serves. We’re not quite there yet. At the same time, we have standards that need to be met."
Police officials say they’re trying to recruit and hire more minorities.
Meanwhile, they continue to make strides with the refugees who’ve been here awhile.
And that building of trust will be a big help to the 200 new refugees from Iraq, Bhutan, Congo and Somalia, who arrive in Manchester this fall.