MANCHESTER, N.H. – Ahmed was called a traitor in Iraq. The 48-year-old worked as a security manager for several American newspapers. For that he was kidnapped twice, and threatened by men half his age. Both he and his wife were shot and seriously injured by insurgents.
But he took the job because he “believed that journalists could tell the true story of what is happening in my country,” said Ahmed, who asked that his name be changed for fear of facing retaliation in the United States.
Ahmed settled with his wife and two children in Manchester, New Hampshire, one of 50 Iraqi families in a city that over the last decade has become home to more than 2,100 refugees from all over the world.
Now economic pressures are forcing city officials to question whether Manchester can continue to be a destination city for refugees.
The year after Ahmed arrived, city officials here began debating whether to impose a moratorium on the arrival of more refugees. At issue was a financial question: In the midst of a recession, could Manchester afford to continue to absorb 300 people a year into its population of about 100,000 people?
Last year, the city of Manchester asked the State Department to impose a moratorium for at least two years on refugees coming into the community.
“We needed to take a respite so when new arrivals come they could come to a place where all their needs are met,” said Democratic Alderman Patrick Long.
Long, together with Mayor Ted Gatsas, was a force behind the calls for a moratorium on refugees, which resulted in a compromise to reduce the number of refugees allowed in the city from 300 down to 200 in 2012.
The alderman said he was concerned that the city did not have enough resources to handle a constant stream of refugees.
Each refugee family is given about $1,000 when they first arrive, as well as federal help to support themselves with rent and food. They also get help finding temporary jobs and enrolling in English classes.
But Long says the city does not have the infrastructure or social services to tend to those communities’ needs.
“I found myself putting out little fires every day,” he explained. “Somebody needs a ride to the doctor, somebody needs food, somebody needs a place to live.”
Long said he is concerned that Manchester could be painted as an unwelcoming city to immigrants, but he said that is not the case.
“My objective is for the immigrants to thrive,” he said. “I’m angry that the finances to help the new arrivals are not being used efficiently.”
Critics like Long say resettlement agencies, which receive federal funds to bring refugees here, only follow up with refugees for a few months and do not get involved in long term issues such as quality housing.
As an example, he cited a bedbug infestation that affected a refugee community living in an apartment complex. “We emptied all the apartments, people moved temporarily, we cleaned,” he said. “But the institute never showed up,” he said, referring to the non-profit organization the International Institute of New England, which works with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to bring refugees to Manchester.
Carolyn Benedict-Drew, CEO of the International Institute of New England, said she was alarmed by the city’s claims and the impact that the reduction on the numbers of refugees could have on the reunification of families.
“People left [their countries] due to humanitarian reasons. Think about Iraq. We have so many that need to come,” she said. “If you have family members there, you’ll want them to come and be safe with you.”
Benedict-Drew said that the city’s responsibility is to take care of housing for everyone, regardless of where they come from. Further, she said, the city hasn’t provided her agency with any hard facts about the costs it takes to care for the refugees.
She denies claims that refugees burden the city with health care needs and social services, and said this is something the political right is trying to make an issue out of.
“Refugees are the fabric of this country,” she said. “Our goal is for them to become self-sustainable as soon as possible.”
‘Refugees bring assets’
Members of the city’s Bhutanese community say they are opposed to a decrease in refugees, citing the economic contributions that they have made in the city of Manchester.
“Refugees bring assets,” said Tika Acharya, a volunteer at the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire, a coalition that helps new arrivals. “Once we are here, we are new Americans; we are brothers and sisters joining hands to work together.”
Refugees from Bhutan, who came here from camps in Nepal, represent some of the latest arrivals to Manchester. The International Institute of New England estimates that they have resettled between 500 and 1,000 Bhutanese in Manchester over the last five years.
Acharya opposes the moratorium, saying that it doesn’t make sense from a practical point of view.
“If they send my sister to another city, I would go get her and bring her here,” he said.
Geraldine Kirega, the director of the Women for Women Coalition and a refugee from Tanzania, has an uncompromising view when it comes to the presence of refugees in Manchester.
“I don’t support the limiting of them,” said Kirega, who is known as “Mama G.” “When they leave their country, it’s not their fault. They go through hardships when they are pushed out of their land.”
Kirega said that the city’s argument for a moratorium may have been well intended, but they didn’t follow up on their good intentions.
“They said they wanted to have better housing and resources to improve the situation. They haven’t taken action,” she said. “They haven’t shown what they’ve done to improve.”
In December, the City Council of Manchester did authorize the distribution of about $355,000 in federal funds to assist communities where refugees resettle. The funds first went to the state, which decided how to allocate them. The portion that the city got was only $60,000, which went to the Manchester Health Department. The rest went to resettlement agencies and non-profits that serve refugee communities: $120,000 to the International Institute of New England and $175,000 to the Lutheran Social Services.
Eva Castillo, who works for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Manchester, says she understands where the city is coming from.
“This is not about immigration,” said Castillo, who is originally from Venezuela. “It is about resources.”
Castillo, who says she is the only advocate of her kind in the city who is working to bring awareness about refugee issues to Anglos, says she is overwhelmed by the community’s needs.
But perceptions about refugees and immigrants in the city are also clouded by bias and fear, she adds.
“The amount of services they use is minimal but there’s the idea that they use more of them,” she said. “It is not racism. It’s ignorance.”
The economic downturn and the difficulty finding jobs have exacerbated negative perceptions of refugees here—despite the fact that Manchester’s unemployment rate (4.5 percent) is lower than the national average (8.5 percent), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Unfortunately, people are facing economic pressures. Those who live here and are having a hard time finding a job see all these new people arrive and they have the wrong impression that refugees come here and get free houses and cars,” Castillo said.
Nermin Cejvan, a 33-year-old refugee from Bosnia who has been living just outside Manchester for 18 years, says the community that once welcomed him with open arms sometimes looks at him with suspicious eyes.
“‘I don’t give jobs to foreigners.’ I hear that sometimes,” he said.
A home among strangers
For Ahmed and his family, the U.S. economic recession is a daily reality they understand all too well.
In Iraq, Ahmed made good money working as a security manager for large U.S. newspapers, escorting them to far-flung corners of his country and risking his life in the process.
He took a different route home every day. He checked underneath his car for a bomb every time he drove.
But it was when his wife was shot that it became clear that he had to leave the country that he loved.
In 2007, his wife Maryam was driving with their son, who was two years old, when another car approached and a passenger shot her in the arm and chest, missing her heart.
She drove herself to the hospital, Maryam said through an interpreter, pointing at one of the wounds in her arm.
The entire family arrived in Manchester on the middle of the winter to piercingly cold weather they had never experienced before and without proper clothes. “We didn’t know where to go,” said Ahmed. “We didn’t know how to call Iraq. We had no TV, no Internet.”
They said that for 10 days, they felt completely isolated.
Eventually, Ahmed got a job as a security guard in a hotel.
He makes about $10 an hour and works the night shift. He is humbled by the quiet job that doesn’t come near the kind of security work he used to do in Iraq.
Still, Ahmed feels like a stranger at work and on the street.
“When I tell [hotel guests] to be quiet, that they’re disturbing other guests, they tell me to be quiet. They say they’re better [than me] because their name is not ‘Mohammed,’” he said. “They think we’re all terrorists.”
Haytham Aukira, another refugee from Iraq who has been in the United States for more than 11 years, has become one of Ahmed’s good friends.
“We are coming here because the Americans made a big mess over there,” Aukira said with frustration.
Yet, he says he doesn’t disagree with having a moratorium on refugees.
Currently the number of refugees admitted into the United States is set by the president and Congress. Resettlement agencies contracted by the Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration help the refugees navigate the process of coming to the United States.
“The city should be able to say how many people can come, not Washington, D.C.,” Aukira said.
For people like Benedict-Drew, that would be like opening a Pandora’s box that could spread to the rest of the country fueled by some groups’ anti-immigrant sentiment.
“If we took refugees and immigrants from this country I don’t think we’d have an America left,” she said.
Ahmed has turned down several well-paid offers to go back to Iraq and work for security companies and even the United Nations.
“I decided to refuse to go back [to Iraq] for my family,” he said.
He knows it will take time, maybe even generations, for his country to be safe for them.