Manchester — After being exiled from his native Bhutan at age 4, Chuda Niroula spent the next two decades in a Nepali refugee camp with no running water, no electricity and never enough food. Almost two years ago he arrived in Manchester as one of the 60,000 to 80,000 refugees taken in each year by the U.S.
Though it was difficult, Niroula said he welcomed the challenges that came with life here. Chief among those was speaking the language: despite learning English in Nepal he struggled communicating with Americans at first
Now, at 26, he is married and works two jobs to support his parents and younger siblings.
While many Bhutanese have transitioned well to life in U.S. — and they are all better off than they were in refugee camps — many, especially those older than 40, are struggling, Niroula said.
“Bhutanese are facing lot of challenges, because they are jobless,” he said.
The refugees aren’t the only ones having trouble coping with the transition. The growing number of refugees could be jarring for one of the least diverse states in the country. In the past decade, the number of immigrants in New Hampshire has grown by 36 percent, outpacing national growth by 6 percent.
Refugees are still a fraction of the population in the state’s largest city. A task force estimates there are 3,500 in Manchester out of a total population of 110,000. State Department figures show that between 2000 and 2010, almost 2,500 refugees were resettled in the city, just over half New Hampshire’s total during that period.
A central fear is that because services for refugees are frontloaded to their arrival, those who don’t transition well immediately are falling through the cracks. That could become costly for the city.
But advocates for refugees say that ignores the positive contributions of those who find their footing and become active in the community or open new businesses.
In November 2011, Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican then newly elected to his second term, drew national attention after asking the State Department to stop resettling refugees to Manchester. In a recent interview, he said he still believes the city could benefit from break in their arrival.
“We’ve got refugees in this community that don’t know the language, don’t have a job, and what I’ve been saying is let us catch our breath. Let us get these people into working society, so they’re good examples of the city of Manchester,” he said. “You can’t do that by bringing 300 more refugees on top of that.”
Dr. Jacqueline Verville, director of the Holy Cross Family Resource Center, which provides English classes and other services, said her organization is far from being maxed out, adding that Holy Cross is only one of many groups providing similar services. She said she believed there should be no restrictions on new arrivals but acknowledged many immigrants do struggle.
Refugees arrive in U.S. with debt, as they’re expected to reimburse the government within three years for their flight. After 180 days, the material support from resettlement agencies runs out.
The Manchester task force collected figures in 2010 showing 85 percent of refugees became taxpayers within a year. That’s not indicative of full employment, as many refugees find short-term or seasonal work, but permanent positions are harder to come by.
Niroula’s family is part of the growing Bhutanese community in New Hampshire, centered in Manchester, which began arriving in 2008.
They are the most recent wave of refugees to land in New Hampshire. Several thousand African and Middle Eastern refugees — mostly Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese — were resettled there in the first part of the last decade and continue to arrive in much smaller numbers.
During the last session, Gatsas led a failed push pass a bill at the state level giving municipalities the authority to enact a one-year moratorium on new refugee resettlement.
Among the issues he raised at the time was poor communication between the city and the resettlement agency, though he said that relationship has improved.
Carolyn Benedict-Drew, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England, which places refugees in the Boston, Lowell and Manchester areas, said communication is difficult because her organization sometimes gets little notice of new arrivals, but she’s not sure there’s actually a problem.
“I’m not convinced the mayor is speaking on behalf of the majority of constituents in Manchester,” she said in an interview. “The mayor has been very clear he would like to have no more refugees in his community, and that’s not going to happen.”
Despite not seeing eye to eye, her organization has reached an informal detente with the mayor. She said they have agreed to resettle only refugees with immediate family in the area, but ultimately those decisions are up to the State Department.
New refugees began arriving again last October, and she said the institute will place close to 200 during the current fiscal year, which ends in September.
To take some of the pressure off Manchester, close to 50 will be resettled in nearby Nashua.
Bava Berhane, director of the refugee services division with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the mayor’s request is unusual and most resettlement communities welcome refugees, despite occasional challenges.
Courtesy: Valley News/Associated Press