To rebuild a life: the first months of resettling Afghan refugees in New Hampshire
Safiya Wazir, who serves as a state representative, works with new arrivals from Afghanistan. (Courtesy)
When Safiya Wazir arrived in New Hampshire 15 years ago, she was fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Although her circumstances were different than those 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 adjusting to a new language and culture, and what it’s like to rebuild a life from scratch.
She now serves as a state representative and works with the new Afghan arrivals through her job at Ascentria, one of the state’s resettlement agencies. One of her goals is to help people understand what new refugees are facing as they start over in New Hampshire.
“Our families coming from these countries are traumatized from war. These families have been struggling, struggling to even live day to day,” Wazir said. People should be welcoming and feel safe around the new arrivals, she added.
“Understand the struggles that our refugees go through. It takes time for one person to build a life,” she said.
Two resettlement agencies in the state have been receiving the new arrivals and helping them get settled. On the week of Thanksgiving, the International Institute of New England welcomed 81 people, and Ascentria Care Alliance welcomed 96 in New Hampshire. Ascentria expects to receive another 60, around 10 of whom are likely to land in the Granite State, according to Jeffrey Kinney, chief of strategic development for the organization. Ascentria also works in Massachusetts, which has received 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, Kinney said, things moved much faster than they typically do. Then, there were negotiations between national and local agencies about how many refugees a given local agency could take on. For Ascentria, New Hampshire’s lack of housing was one constraint. Being short-staffed was another.
Kinney said the pace of the Afghan resettlement has been unprecedented.
“We will have resettled more refugees in the last 120 days than we did in the last three years combined,” he said. And it wasn’t easy because much of the infrastructure agencies like Ascentria depend on had been dismantled during the Trump administration, when the country accepted only around 15,000 refugees per year, down from the 90,000 to 100,000 typically accepted. That left Ascentria scrambling to hire and train new staff to meet the needs of new arrivals.
For Wazir, it took 11 years in a refugee camp in Uzbekistan before she and her family were able to come to the United States. The time in the refugee camp was hard. They lived with the constant fear that a police officer might come to their apartment at night and take them to jail. There were times when they were instructed 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 kid and ran from her in fear on her first day in the school. She was 7 years old at the time.
“It’s hard to grasp those moments,” she said. “It sticks with me. We might forget the good stories of our lives, but the bad ones stick with you.”
It was her father’s idea to come to New Hampshire. He wanted to be in the countryside, a calm and peaceful place where his daughter could go to school without fear that something would stop her from pursuing her dream. He wanted a place that was convenient, accessible, and on the smaller side. “The biggest dream was for me to go to school and be able to stand up for myself,” Wazir said. It’s a dream she has been able to realize in New Hampshire.
The United States takes less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide, said Henry Harris, a caseworker with the International Institute of New England. While there are 30 major countries that resettle refugees, Harris said it’s a common misconception that the United States is taking everyone. In fact, he said, we regularly fail to even resettle the number of people that various presidential administrations have agreed to. “The number never gets met,” he said. “It always comes in less than what the president sets.”
Then, Harris said, “there’s this myth that everything’s going to be rosy when you get here.” But many of the people he works with have to start over.
Sometimes people arrive without their documentation, without school records or other credentials. “It takes a while to get back to where you were,” he said.
The resettlement agency’s first response is to meet basic needs: safety and access to food. Then, there are placements for those who need English classes or other cultural trainings about local laws and culture.
When refugees arrive, resettlement agencies receive some federal funds to cover basic needs during the first 90 days: around $1,225 per person, Kinney said.
“The last time I looked, the average rent for a two-bedroom in Manchester is like 1,800 bucks. That might actually be low now. So the math doesn’t work,” he said.
So the resettlement agencies are looking for money elsewhere, like forming neighborhood support teams with a goal of raising $10,000 for a family. Kinney said they have around 40 teams in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, enough to cover around 70 percent of the families resettled here. And, he said, it’s dramatically improved the family’s chance for success; the support teams live nearby, and can help with things like transportation and getting children to medical appointments.
Plus, the state governments have pitched in some funds to help: Massachusetts approved $12 million for six resettlement agencies. In New Hampshire, $400,000 was split between Ascentria and the International Institute of New England. It was the first time either state had contributed to refugee resettlement. The New Hampshire money is earmarked to help people find housing.
Harris said the New Hampshire housing stock is a problem, with old buildings that weren’t designed for big families. His organization has developed relationships with landlords to help ease the process, but it can be hard to convince a landlord to take a chance on a family arriving with no credit score. For the time being, some refugee families are still being housed in hotels.
After housing, employment is another major consideration. With the staffing shortage in the state, there are many available jobs. Harris said he would hear from big institutions with a lot of openings in areas like manufacturing, maintenance, housekeeping, food service, and health care. But barriers remain, especially with language and transportation, Harris said. It takes a while for a newcomer to be able to afford a car or learn English.
For Wazir, it took three years before her family was able to get a car. Until that time they walked everywhere: to the store, the mosque, classes. Now that many of the new arrivals are in the same position, Wazir urged other residents to be understanding and accepting of differences, whether it’s how people get around or how they dress.
“My ask from our people is to accept who we are, accept us as friends and as neighbors,” she said.
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