June 24. 2018 10:07PM

Sandown couple opens home to refugees for yearly celebration

Union Leader Correspondent

Kenthia Mukuzo joined other kids to make bubbles during a gathering of more than 50 refugees at the Traeger home in Sandown on Saturday. Kenthia and her family arrived in New Hampshire in January from Congo. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

SANDOWN — Mark and Heidi Traeger wanted to find a way for refugees to feel at home in New Hampshire.

With their 30-plus acres of land nestled in the woods off Fremont Road, the Sandown couple decided to open their doors to more than 50 refugees who have started their new lives in America.

They gathered at the Traeger home on Saturday to share stories over food, play yard games, make crafts, fish in a backyard pond, and relax in the nature that surrounds their quiet residence.

Some enjoyed a good laugh by wearing red noses and posing for pictures.

It was the third time that the Traegers have hosted the gathering for the refugees who came legally from nearly a dozen different countries, including Syria, Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Yemen, Myanmar, and Iraq.

They held their first event last year.

“When there was a change in politics I didn’t want to be a complainer, I wanted to do something,” Heidi said.

She discovered the International Institute of New England (IINE), an organization that helps refugees and immigrants succeed through resettlement, education, career advancement and pathways to citizenship.

The Traegers worked with IINE to offer up their property as a place to bring refugees together to make new friends and feel welcomed in the outdoors.

Most of those who attended are now living in Manchester.

“The point is for them to come out and just enjoy themselves. It’s not a political thing. It’s just to have fun. It’s really moving,” Heidi said.

Several volunteers helped the Traegers with the event and provided what seemed like an endless supply of food for their guests.

Abdulwakil Alabrash and his wife and three children, ages 9, 11, and 12, fled Syria in 2012 and went to Egypt, where they lived until they came to the United States a year and a half ago and now live in an apartment in Manchester.

“We were forced to leave Syria. We flee from the war and a very difficult situation,” he said.

As soon as they arrived in New Hampshire they began working to improve their English speaking skills.

“We want to be positive people,” he said.

Alabrash got his first job here as an electrical engineer for a company in Massachusetts. His wife, Farah, plans to study the English language at the University of New Hampshire in July and eventually study psychology.

Alabrash said they didn’t come to the United States seeking aid. 

“I paid taxes last year. I am working. We will contribute in a positive way and have a better life for us and for all the people here,” he said.

His wife said they want to stay in New Hampshire and raise their children here.

“We love this state. The people here are very kind. We have only met kind people,” she said.

While some families in attendance came to the United States in recent years, others arrived in recent days.

Anita Manirambona’s cousin came a few days ago from the African country of Burundi, where she spent more than 20 years living in a refugee camp.

Mirfat Alsakkaf arrived a year ago with her two children from Yemen. She said she left Yemen to escape war and receive treatment for myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease. 

Alsakkaf said her disease caused her to lose her voice when she first came to New Hampshire, but she has since regained her ability to speak because of the treatment she’s able to receive here.

“When I came here I can’t talk at all,” she said.

Amadou Hamady Sy, a former director at IINE who now works with English learning students in the Manchester school system, came to the United States from Mauritania — a country in northwestern Africa — 13 years ago as a student.

Sy said that for many refugees and immigrants it can be difficult for them to feel a bond when they first arrive.

“One of the ways to feel that way is having opportunities to go out there, visit a landmark in New Hampshire, visit a place where you can meet other people, especially from the receiving community, and learn from them. It’s important for these families to have these opportunities to get to meet not only people like them but meet some new people and feel they are welcomed in their new home,” he said.

Megan Clark, a case specialist with IINE, runs a program called Preferred Communities, which helps more vulnerable clients like single mothers and those with disabilities and mental health issues who need more support.

Clark said events like the one at the Traegers are important for the refugees as they try to integrate into American society.

“It really shows that despite what they’re hearing in the media, they really are welcome here and we love having them and families like the Traegers really show that. We always appreciate the community coming out and doing events like these to really show the families that they are welcome here,” she said.