New Refugees Find Hope, Help, and Some Resistance in the Granite State

Dec 23, 2016

About a dozen Syrians were resettled in New Hampshire last year, and more than 7000 refugees from many countries have come here since the 1980s.  We look at the resettlement process, the challenges both newcomers and their host communities face, and what changes might be in store under a Trump administration.


GUESTS: 

  • Mukhtar Idhow - Executive director of ORIS, the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, which provides training and services to promote self-sufficiency for refugees and immigrants. 
  • Jeffrey Thielman- President and Chief Executive Officer for the International Institute of New England, which provides humanitarian relief and helps refugees and immigrants resettle. 
  • Al Abrash Abdulwakil Mohamed Shuaib - A Syrian refugee and electrical engineer who arrived to Manchester in November with his wife, three children, and parents. 
  • Ted Gatsas - Mayor of Manchester.
  • Ken Siegel - Alderman for Ward 9 in Nashua.

Read more coverage about immigrants, refugees, and New England in the New England News Collaborative series "Facing Change in the Nation's Oldest Region." 

What is the process for resettling a refugee in the United States?

"The U.S. State Department runs a program, a very tight, well-run, well-oiled machine in which refugees go through lots of vetting, [including] about nine different security screens before they come to the country," says Thielman. He says the process takes at least two years, and includes a series of interviews and language training.

"Within a year of being in the United States," Thielman says, "They can get a green card. Within five years, they can become a citizen of the country." 

Abdulwakil recalls his own experience with the vetting process as reassuring, because the United States was invested in making sure that his family was a good fit for resettlement. 

"They want to know everything about us," he says. He, his wife, and his parents were interviewed numerous times, and had to provide information about their history and acquaintances. 

Once refugees arrive in the United States, Thielman says, the International Institute of New England and other organizations find them a home, and "we help them get jobs as quickly as they possibly can." Each refugee receives about $1000 in aid, which Thielman says is "minimal governmental assistance."

 

What is the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee?

Asylum seekers are people who have fled their country to escape persecution, civil war, or threats to their safety. In order to be granted asylum from another country, an asylum seeker must demonstrate a "well-founded fear of persecution," says Jeff Thielman of the IINE. This may include political, racial, or religious persecution. 

An asylum seeker becomes a refugee by applying for "refugee status" through the United Nations, Thielman says, and if they are approved, they begin the process to be placed in another country. 

Why do refugees not always remain in the country they initially fled to, or at least in an area with a similar culture or language?

Mukhtar Idhow, of ORIS, says that many of these places do not have the resources to accept the large volume of refugees permanently. 

Al Abrash Abdulwakil Mohamed Shuaib, a Syrian refugee who fled to Egypt and spent four years there before moving to Manchester with his family, agrees. "It is not easy to live in Egypt, because it is crowded, and not really safe." He adds that it is difficult to imagine an end to the Syrian conflict, and that the violence may continue to spread to surrounding countries, including Egypt. 

How long does a refugee remain in a refugee camp before resettling elsewhere?

Idhow, who was a refugee from Somalia who eventually resettled in New Hampshire in 2004, spent twenty years in a refugee camp. Thielman says that the average time a refugee spends in a camp is seventeen years, because many countries either will not accept refugees or have a limit to the number of refugees they will resettle. 

What are some of the challenges of resettling refugees in larger N.H. cities like Manchester and Nashua?

Mayor Gatsas says that many children have difficulty succeeding in school, and that places a burden on the school programs to provide services that suit their needs. "There's nothing worse than seeing a child sitting in front of a test that we give them and not understand anything that's on the piece of paper, and expect them to answer questions," he says. "I think it would be the same if you and I went to some of those foreign countries."

Mayor Gatsis adds that the inflow of refugees might be too large to properly settle each family before turning to the next. He wants the state to have more time to help refugees become productive members of society. "Let's give the refugees that are here an opportunity, let's get them to participate in our society and be productive members, get them an education, get them a good job, and then let's bring the next group in." 

Ken Siegel, an alderman from Nashua who's wife fled Cambodia and also spent years in a refugee camp, points out that each situation is unique, and it is hard to define what it means to have someone truly assimilate. 

"Imagine coming here, and speaking only Arabic," he says. "How many Arabic speakers, for example, are there in Nashua? Probably not enough." Siegel says, "You can handle a small amount, but given the situation, the city budget and everything...it's very very difficult." Siegel takes pride in the large immigrant population in Nashua, but is concerned that the city doesn't have the assets to properly assimilate a large number of refugees. 

What are the economic impacts of refugees?

New Hampshire has an aging population and a difficult time filling jobs. In her coverage of the changing face of the Granite State, Emily Corwin of NHPR reports that immigrants, including refugees, contribute to the economy by taking open positions, and working in sectors that desperately need staff.

Abdulwakil is an electrical engineer, and worked for a plastics company before he fled Syria. He says, "Generally, Syrians don't want to rely on help from others. We want to work, we want to contribute." He is currently working on his resume to find employment in Manchester. 

Idhow says that many businesses in Manchester are increasingly welcoming to refugees. "Easterseals [a disability services program] had over 100 positions open, and they could not find people to fill in. So they invested to train refugees to fill in those positions." ORIS works directly with organizations like Easterseals to train employees. 

Other states, including Vermont, look to bolster their economy by resettling more refugees in cities that are struggling to find workers.

In New Hampshire, organizations like the International Institute of New England have seen an increase in volunteers following the election. 

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