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4 NH cities are rethinking approach to immigrants

New Hampshire Sunday News

March 07. 2015 7:25PM
Participants in a recent panel discussion about "Creating Welcoming Communities in New Hampshire," hosted by the Endowment for Health include, from left, Mukhtar Idhow, executive director of the Organization for Immigration and Refugee Success in Manchester; Ed Engler, mayor of Laconia; Liz Fitzgerald, director of community impact for Greater Nashua United Way; Jim Snodgrass, director of Second Start in Concord; and moderator Janet Orozco Sanchez, coordinator of Welcoming NH. (Shane Wickham/Union Leader)

While politicians in Washington, D.C., have been locked in a bitter fight over immigration reform, four New Hampshire cities are embarking on a initiative to make the state a more welcoming place for newcomers.

It's not just a social imperative, said Steven Rowe, president of the Endowment for Health, which launched the New Hampshire Immigrant Integration Initiative.

With the state's aging population and low birth rate, Rowe said, "The collective health of our people and the health of our economy depend on us welcoming immigrants into the state."

"Many immigrants arrive here with hopes and dreams of a more prosperous future," he said. "And it's in our collective interest to make sure they achieve those dreams and realize that hope."

Last year, the Endowment for Health, with matching funds from New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, awarded $11,000 in planning grants to four cities: Concord, Laconia, Manchester and Nashua.

Doing ground work

At a recent gathering in Concord, organizers shared their plans and ideas for integrating immigrants and refugees more fully into the social, civic and economic life of those communities.

Ed Engler is the mayor of Laconia and editor of the local newspaper. He agreed to get involved in the project, he said, because as a history buff, he appreciates Laconia's heritage as a city built and enriched by French-Canadian immigrants.

The city has a vital interest in welcoming today's newcomers, he said.

"The big issue is economic vitality, something that we're sadly lacking in Laconia and many other parts of the state," Engler said. "We need a more dynamic economy, and successful integration could well hold the key to a more successful, more dynamic state for all of us."

Mukhtar Idhow is executive director of the Organization for Immigrant and Refugee Success, which is working with other Manchester groups on the integration project.

Idhow fled his native Somalia as a child and spent 20 years as a refugee in Kenya before he and his family were granted permission to come here in 2004.

He became a U.S. citizen on Oct. 9, 2009.

"I felt like I was home," he said. "I was young when I left home, and this country became my home."

"To become more integrated in the society and be part of the society, I think, was the right thing to do. And to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you have different rights - the right to vote, the right to fight for your country if you are needed."

Dovetails nicely

Jim Snodgrass, director of Second Start in Concord, said the initiative was a natural fit for his organization, which has offered English-language classes for immigrants for years. "Besides, it's the right thing to do," he said.

Second Start plans to create a "civics academy" to provide newcomers with information about local government services and business opportunities.

According to data compiled by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, nearly 6 percent of New Hampshire residents were born in a foreign country. One-third of them come from Asia, one-quarter from Europe, 21 percent from Latin America, 14 percent from North America and 6 percent from Africa.

Newcomers often bring broad education and work experiences with them. Nearly 39 percent of the foreign-born here have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 34 percent of native-born residents.

But they're also more likely to be living close to the poverty threshold, according to NHCPPS.

Began again

Lidia Dunham of Milford was a practicing attorney in her native Brazil. But when she came to New Hampshire eight years ago to join relatives already here, she learned her law degree was not transferable.

So she earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at what is now Mount Washington College and became an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

She became a U.S. citizen three years ago and is part of Nashua's new welcoming initiative, which will focus on the city's middle schools.

Adapting to a new country and community is not easy, Dunham said. "I have to confess it was a little bit frightening," she said.

Still, she said she has found Nashua to be "very welcoming."

Much to offer

Immigrants and refugees should be viewed as assets to local communities, Dunham said. "They bring values; they bring different perspectives. They make our community and the society better."

It was important to her to become a citizen, she said. "I love this country that I chose, the same way I love Brazil," she said.

"In Brazil, I was productive. I was a lawyer. I want to do the same here."

Kate Bruchacova was recently hired as what Engler called a "walking welcome center" in Laconia, a key element of that city's integration initiative.

A native of Slovakia, she came to New Hampshire first as a student in 2002 to work at Margate Resort during the summer. She moved here for good in 2006 and became a citizen five years later.

Not draining resources

Bruchacova said the biggest misconception she encounters about immigrants is that they're taking something away from those already here.

"Surprisingly, some people even with education, they just don't believe that we should have refugees or immigrants in the area," she said. "They're afraid they take away the opportunities that are there for people."

Bruchacova plans to reach out to faith communities, employers, schools and organizations to build bridges among newcomers and residents. "A lot of people are very caring and interested in the countries that people come from," she said.

"I think it's important to also share the journey, meaning what did it take for people to come here, and that they are contributing back to the society," she said. "I'd like to share the success as well."

Business owner

Tika Acharya, a native of Bhutan who was educated in India, is a successful Manchester businessman and civic leader.

He moved to New Hampshire "on a snowy day in January" six years ago, with his parents, his blind grandmother and his pregnant wife.

Now a father of two and a U.S. citizen, he has started two businesses, a store called Himalayas that specializes in clothing, food and cultural items from the Indian subcontinent, and, more recently, his own MetLife insurance office.

Acharya co-founded the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization serving refugees and immigrants from many countries. He's active in the integration initiatives in Manchester and Concord.

Acharya wants to focus on engaging the business communities and on career counseling for children of immigrants and refugees. "They can become entrepreneurs," he said. "They can become CEOs."

What some may not realize, he said, is how strongly these newcomers wish to give back to their new homeland - to get jobs and pay taxes, buy homes and open businesses, as he has.

"The integration actually comes when these people start contributing back to the community," he said.

A new beginning

The day Acharya bought his home in Manchester, he saw tears of joy in the eyes of his father, a former political prisoner who was tortured. It's the same hope he sees in the faces of others who come here to make a better life, he said.

At the recent planning session in Concord, Rachel Peric, deputy director of the national group Welcoming America, praised the initiative the four communities here are undertaking.

"I think when we look back through the lens of history," she said, "we will see that these were the efforts that really changed our country."

"You hold the keys to your communities' future," she told the group. "You are the ones who are shaping it."

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