Ready or not, the refugees are coming
The state's refugee resettlement program is expected to spread from Manchester to Nashua in the coming weeks, with 50 refugees headed toward the Gate City. Officials in both cities are expressing concern over the plans.
"I was talking about my concerns with the head of the International Institute, and the next communication I have from them is to say that they (the refugees) are coming, and we've found housing for them," said Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau. "I asked, 'Where? When? Who's coming? Are there any children?' No one has any answers. The concerns I raised were real ones, and I feel like they weren't addressed at all."
The International Institute of New Hampshire (IINH) has been working for months to resettle another 200 refugees in Manchester, despite a sometimes frosty relationship with city officials. Mayor Ted Gatsas wrote a letter in 2011 to the U.S. State Department, which oversees the refugee program, faulting its "complete and utter lack of consideration for the local resettlement community."
Citing the challenges the thousands of refugees already in the city face in terms of housing, education and employment, Gatsas later sought a moratorium on new arrivals, asking the Executive Council to withhold federal contracts to IINH and other resettlement agencies. The contracts were eventually approved.
Manchester Ward 3 alderman Pat Long, who headed a commission to study the refugee problems in Manchester, said he approached IINH officials months ago about the possibility of spreading out the 200 incoming refugees to other communities around the Queen City.
"There is a stipulation that resettlement take place within 50 miles of the local state office," said Long. "The IINH office is located in Manchester, so we were asking that they look at other communities within 50 miles of the city as well. Nashua was one of them, and when I heard there were 50 refugees headed there, I thought at first they were part of the group of 200, but that's not the case. The IINH has applied for and been approved to receive 50 additional refugees."
IINH Executive Director Nasir Arush confirmed Friday that separate groups are headed to Nashua and Manchester.
Long said there is a chance the refugees could end up in Manchester eventually.
"When we've questioned them in the past, the IINH always points out that these are families they are trying to keep together, that the refugees have family members here they are coming to be with," said Long. "So my concern with this is, when the institute money runs out, and this group leaves Nashua, they likely have family here in Manchester. So it's likely they will head here as well."
Refugees are given financial assistance when they first arrive, including Medicare coverage up to nine months. There is assistance from the resettlement agency to help them find work and acclimate to the community. There is past evidence for refugees arriving in Nashua and heading for Manchester. In 2008, the Gate City received 59 refugees from Somalia and Burundi. Most of the Somalians have since left for Manchester or other parts of the country, while the Burundians stayed.
The Queen City has been the top resettlement location for refugees in New Hampshire. Between 2002 and 2009, Manchester received 1,807 of the state's 2,966 new refugees, about 60 percent, while Nashua, the state's second-largest city, received 70 refugees over the same time. Concord and Laconia each received 778 and 260, respectively.
"In Nashua, we've been working closely with the local community and some of the religious groups in the area," said Arush. "We're getting a lot of support in Nashua right now."
But Lozeau said she has many concerns.
"It's not enough to bring them just because you have federal money and the OK to do so," she said. "Without doing the proper due diligence work, you are setting them up to fail, and that doesn't benefit anyone.
Nasir said his agency is considering opening an office in Nashua next year, but that the office will remain in Manchester and will continue to work with the refugee community and local officials.
"There's no intention on our end to settle in Nashua to make Manchester happy," he said. "We want to keep that relationship (with Manchester) strong."
New Hampshire Union Leader staff reporter Ted Siefer contributed to this report.