When Safiya Wazir arrived in New Hampshire 15 years ago, she was fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Although her situation is different from that of the new Afghan refugees now resettling in the state, there are some similarities in their experiences. Wazir knows the trauma of war, the difficult task of adapting to a new language and culture, and what it’s like to rebuild a life from scratch.
She is now a state representative and works with Afghan newcomers through her job at Ascentria, one of the state resettlement agencies. One of her goals is to help people understand what new refugees face as they start over in New Hampshire.
“Our families coming from these countries are traumatized by the war. These families are struggling, struggling even to live day to day,” Wazir said. People need to be welcoming and feel safe around new arrivals, she added.
“Understand the struggles our refugees are going through. It takes time for a person to build a life,” she said.
Two state resettlement agencies receive newcomers and help them settle. This Thanksgiving week, the New England International Institute welcomed 81 people and the Ascentria Care Alliance welcomed 96 in New Hampshire. Ascentria expects to receive another 60, of which about 10 will likely land in the Granite State, according to Jeffrey Kinney, the organization’s chief strategic development officer. Ascentria is also working in Massachusetts, which has taken in more Afghan refugees.
“As bad as the housing market is in Massachusetts, it’s worse in New Hampshire,” Kinney said.
Why New Hampshire?
In a normal refugee resettlement process, the State Department determines where people go, Kinney said. The department tries to locate them in communities with people from their country and culture, he said, and then local resettlement agencies are told to expect a certain number of people from a particular country.
With the Afghan crisis, the process was different. For one thing, Kinney said, things have moved much faster than they usually do. Then there were negotiations between national and local agencies about how many refugees a given local agency could support. For Ascentria, the lack of housing in New Hampshire was a constraint. Lack of staff was another.
Kinney said the pace of Afghan resettlement was unprecedented.
“We will have resettled more refugees in the past 120 days than we have in the past three years combined,” he said. And it wasn’t easy because much of the infrastructure agencies like Ascentria depended on had been dismantled under the Trump administration, when the country only accepted around 15,000 refugees a year, compared to 90,000 to 100,000 typically. accepted. This left Ascentria scrambling to hire and train new employees to meet the needs of newcomers.
For Wazir, it took 11 years in a refugee camp in Uzbekistan before she and her family could come to the United States. The weather in the refugee camp was hard. They lived in constant fear that a policeman might come to their apartment at night and take them to jail. There were times when they were asked not to open the door if someone knocked. Wazir was enrolled in school there but was misunderstood by other school children, who called her a Taliban child and ran away from her in fear on her first day at school. She was 7 years old at the time.
“It’s hard to capture these moments,” she said. “It sticks with me. We may forget the good stories of our lives, but the bad ones stay with you.
It was his father’s idea to come to New Hampshire. He wanted to be in the countryside, a quiet and peaceful place where his daughter could go to school without fear that something would stop her from pursuing her dream. He wanted a practical, accessible and somewhat small place. “The biggest dream was for me to go to school and be able to defend myself,” Wazir said. It’s a dream she was able to achieve in New Hampshire.
The United States hosts less than 1% of the world’s refugees, said Henry Harris, desk officer at the New England International Institute. Although there are 30 major countries resettling refugees, Harris said it’s a common misconception that the United States takes everyone. In fact, he said, we don’t even regularly manage to resettle the number of people that the various presidential administrations have agreed on. “The number is never reached,” he said. “It always comes in less than what the president sets.”
Then, Harris said, “there’s this myth that it’s all going to be rosy when you get here.” But a lot of people he works with have to start over.
Sometimes people arrive without their identity papers, school records or other proof of identity. “It takes time to get back to where you were,” he said.
The resettlement agency’s first response is to meet basic needs: security and access to food. Then there are internships for those who need English lessons or other cultural training on local laws and culture.
When refugees arrive, resettlement agencies receive federal funds to cover basic needs for the first 90 days: about $1,225 per person, Kinney said.
“Last time I looked, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Manchester was around $1,800. That might actually be low now. So the math doesn’t work,” he said. declared.
Resettlement agencies are therefore looking for money elsewhere, such as forming neighborhood support teams in an effort to raise $10,000 for a family. Kinney said they have about 40 teams in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, enough to cover about 70% of resettled families here. And, he said, it dramatically improved the family’s chances of success; support teams live nearby and can help with things like transportation and getting children to medical appointments.
In addition, state governments have provided funds to help: Massachusetts approved $12 million for six resettlement agencies. In New Hampshire, $400,000 was split between Ascentria and the New England International Institute. It was the first time that either state had contributed to the resettlement of refugees. The New Hampshire money is intended to help people find housing.
Harris said New Hampshire’s housing stock is a problem, with old buildings that weren’t designed for large families. His organization has developed relationships with landlords to help with the process, but convincing a landlord to take a chance with a family that arrives with no credit score can be difficult. For the moment, some refugee families are still staying in hotels.
After housing, employment is another major concern. With the staffing shortage in the state, there are plenty of jobs available. Harris said he would hear from large institutions with many openings in areas such as manufacturing, maintenance, housekeeping, catering and health care. But barriers remain, particularly with language and transportation, Harris said. It takes time for a newcomer to be able to afford a car or learn English.
For Wazir, it took three years before his family could have a car. Until then, they walked everywhere: to the store, to the mosque, to the courts. Now that many of the new arrivals are in the same situation, Wazir urged other residents to understand and accept the differences, whether it’s the way people move around or the way they dress. .
“My request to our people is to accept who we are, to accept us as friends and as neighbours,” she said.