How refugees – and Afghan evacuees – arrive in New Hampshire
When Mmunga Masimango arrived in Concord in 2016, it had been 17 years since he left his home in eastern Congo. He spent most of his childhood and teenage years in a refugee camp in Tanzania, living with his family in United Nations tents and waiting to see if he could ever return home.
Now a case manager at Overcomers Refugee Services and a senior at Southern New Hampshire University, Masimango knows well the long journey refugees take when forced to flee their country of origin and settle in the United States. .
This familiarity allows him to help new Americans to Concord, a term that encompasses refugees as well as those who become permanent residents and citizens, as they seek employment, learn English and adjust to life. in a new culture.
Soon he will help new Afghan arrivals fleeing the Taliban overcome some of the challenges he has faced.
The process Masimango went through as a child to escape his war-torn home to a well-established professional in Concord required the cooperation of federal agencies, state government, and local organizations. It may take years to bring refugees here, but it is an effort that is being accelerated to help those fleeing Afghanistan. The first new arrivals were due to arrive in New Hampshire last week.
Typically, a potential refugee begins their path to the United States by obtaining refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in their country of origin.
Then an embassy or non-governmental organization can refer them to the United States, where they can apply at centers managed by the State Department.
“Nobody chooses the country they want to go to, where they want to go. It is the country that chooses the people,” said Clément Kigugu, executive director of Overcomers and a former refugee.
A refugee, under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1980, is a person who has suffered persecution in the past or who has a credible fear of persecution in their country of origin because of their race, nationality. religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions. This definition applies to people outside the United States, while asylum applies to those already inside the country.
“He is a person who has been persecuted and who has no other solution, he cannot stay in his country of origin,” said Alexander Weber, head of institutional promotion at the International Institute of New England. “They don’t have a home.”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determine whether a person meets the U.S. definition of a refugee and conduct security screening and interviews. Then there are additional steps, including screening for contagious diseases and obtaining sponsorship insurance from a U.S. resettlement agency. Interest-free loans funded by the State Department pay for refugee flights.
In New Hampshire, staff from Ascentria or the New England International Institute welcome refugees arriving at the airport, put them in furnished accommodation, put them in contact with medical services, help them educate them. children and make sure they can meet their basic needs, such as food and transportation.
The refugee resettlement process operates as a public-private partnership between the federal government’s Office for Refugee Resettlement and nine national organizations, which in turn affiliate with local voluntary resettlement agencies.
Federal money goes to local agencies to help refugees for the first 90 days, set out in a detailed contract. “It depends on how many forks we need to provide someone with their initial housing,” Weber said.
Refugees are referred to employment services and language courses, and they are eligible to claim the same federal benefits as US citizens, such as Medicaid and food stamps. Due to a continuing resolution approved by Congress in October, Afghans on humanitarian parole have access to the same services and benefits as refugees.
None of the dollars spent on hosting the refugees comes from the state of New Hampshire.
Barbara Seebart is the New Hampshire State Refugee Coordinator, responsible for liaising between the federal program and local agencies, and ensuring that refugees can access the programs they need to be successful.
“We serve people for up to five years after they arrive,” Seebart said. “The goal of Congress is to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency, so all of our grants support individuals and families to that end, to get them back on their feet quickly and into viable jobs.”
The majority of New Hampshire refugees are able to find jobs, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
When Afghan evacuees start arriving in New Hampshire this fall, they will go through a resettlement process similar to that of refugees, although they will face additional hurdles when it comes to staying in the country in such a way. permed.
Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of their country this summer have been designated with a status called “humanitarian parole” by the Biden administration.
Humanitarian parole is a temporary status, often applied to people displaced by natural disasters, granted to people who do not have a visa to enter the United States. It was applied to thousands of people fleeing Vietnam after the withdrawal of American troops in 1975.
While Masimango and other refugees spent years in refugee camps in other countries before they could resettle in the United States, Afghans arriving in New Hampshire wait inside the country, in the one of the eight military bases where they are screened for health problems and vaccinated. for COVID-19.
Resettlement agencies know less information about the Afghan people coming to Concord than they normally would, Weber said.
For other refugees, her agency can find demographic information like religion or ethnicity, and even medical and work history, before a family arrives. When staff picked up the Waziri family from Logan Airport on October 13, Weber said they were only given the name of the “principal applicant” – only one of the two parents. The family lives in Massachusetts.
Many refugees face the trauma of losing loved ones or experiencing conflict, while trying to learn a new language, navigate a foreign culture, and achieve basic stability in work or school. . Some have seen family members killed. While they may feel safe in the United States, they miss the home and loved ones they left behind.
“All groups come in their own circumstances,” Seebart said. “What is unique about Afghans is what we saw on television; how traumatic it was and how quickly they had to leave.
Once arrived, refugees can legally reside in the United States and are allowed to adjust to permanent residence after one year and become citizens after five years, if they pass the citizenship test and pay a fee.
Afghans granted humanitarian parole will have two years to apply for asylum. Asylum is not a safe way to stay in the United States; it can take years to be granted, and comes with legal fees, application fees and the risk of refusal.
“We really don’t know how many people will be left behind, how many parolees will be left behind, if we can’t find the resources and the capacity to help them get asylum,” Weber said.
As Ascentria and the International Institute work to ensure that Afghan refugees and evacuees have a place to live upon arrival, these families must quickly begin to support themselves.
Weber said his organization is raising funds to ensure Afghan refugees and new evacuees don’t have to worry about rent for their first few months, but the high cost of living in Massachusetts and New Hampshire is a problem. permanent.
“The refugees are being resettled in poverty,” Weber said. “Organizations like us, we do our best to put them on a solid footing. ”
In Merrimack County, two-bedroom apartment rents have increased 20% over the past five years and the rental vacancy rate is 0.4%, well below the national average. “Housing is the biggest threat to relocation in New England. It’s not the will of the people, it’s not their support, it’s really housing, ”Weber said.
For Masimango, the chance to leave the poor conditions and the non-existent future in a refugee camp changed his life.
But Kigugu said it’s important to remember that refugees don’t come to the United States looking for better schools or better jobs – they come because they have no other options. He worked overseeing a non-profit organization in Rwanda before coming to the United States.
“I didn’t come here for an opportunity,” Kigugu said. “It’s not really easy to leave … but when the war begins, you have to leave no matter what.”