Multicultural Manchester

By Will Stewart, HippoPress, Manchester, NH

The changing faces of the Queen City

"The more things change, the more they stay the same. Though different in nationality and ethnicity than Manchester's first wave of immigrants, the second wave is using many of the same survival strategies used by those who came to Manchester more than 100 years ago, said Yvonne Cyr Bresnahan. She's the executive director of the Franco-American Centre, which has cataloged French-Canadian immigrant life in Manchester."

For most of its history, Manchester, like the rest of New Hampshire, has been lily-white in its make-up. 

Even the immigrants have been white: French Canadian, Irish, Bosnian, Dutch. For a long time, the concept of a minority population was scarcely more than that -- even a wild idea. Minorities -- people of color -- were in the South or in New York, or Boston, but not here in the Great White North.

Even as the rest of the United States became the world's melting pot, the Queen City remained racially unmixed. The minority population here at one time, it is said, was a guy named Eddie.

But my, how our hue is changing. These days it's not uncommon to see women in kaftans in the Mall of New Hampshire or men in turbans driving down Elm Street -- definitely not your traditional New Englanders. 

From all over the world, people of color are making their homes in the Queen City and the rest of Hillsborough County. And they're bringing their languages, cultures and cuisines along with them.

The first wave

Strictly speaking, immigration is nothing new to Manchester. The case even could be made that without immigration Manchester would never have been anything more than another small, Yankee village.

The story of Manchester is the story of the mills, and the story of the mills is the story of immigrants. When textile mills sprung up along the Merrimack River in the early 19th century, mill owners found the local population was not large enough keep the plants running. The answer to the work shortage was found in the north, in Canada, and across the Atlantic, in Ireland. As is still the case today, immigration was a source of cheap labor and easy to exploit. After all, to whom were immigrants going to complain?

Manchester's first large-scale immigration wave came from Ireland, a move sparked by the potato famine that hit the country in 1845. The potato blight caused the emigration of thousands of Irish to the United States. Many of these settled in Manchester, lured by the jobs in the mills, particularly those at the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, at the time the world's largest textile company.

In the latter half of the century, particularly in the decades after the Civil War, a large number of Québécois migrated south for work in the mills. Also attracted to the area were immigrants from Britain, Germany, Poland, Russia, Sweden and Greece. And while these immigrants brought with them a rich assortment of traditions and heritages, they had one thing in common: they were all white.

The second wave

Manchester's second wave of immigration got its start in the Refugee Act of 1980, which created the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. This program was created by Congress to help refugees successfully settle in this country, helping them achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. A refugee, by the way, is defined as an individual fleeing persecution in his homeland.

The early to mid '90s saw an influx of Bosnian refugees into Manchester. These refugees were escaping the ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Slobodan Milosevic. Again, while speaking a different language and having different customs, these Eastern Europeans were also white.

Then, the number of Hispanics in Manchester grew by 133 percent from 1990 to 2000, to approximately 5,000. In the Manchester school district, there are 75 countries represented and 55 different dialects spoken.

And, more recently, newcomers to Manchester began to represent another ethnicity. Several years ago a wave of African refugees began to make their way to the Queen City, a wave that continues today.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, a total of 364 refugees arrived in Manchester, 88 percent of whom hailed from Africa. The vast majority of those were from Liberia, Somalia and Sudan. It's not hard to miss some of these immigrants -- women walking downtown wearing multi-colored kaftans over winter parkas will definitely draw attention.

The surge of immigrants into the city last summer caused the U.S. State Department to put in place a three-month moratorium on most resettlement here. Enacted at the end of September, the moratorium ended last week. It was sparked by the strain the new immigrants put on the city's public health facilities. It was noted that 34 refugee children contracted lead poisoning after being placed in local housing containing lead paint.

Why Manchester?

The Refugee Act of 1980 established resettlement programs in each of the 50 states. Funds from the Office of Refugee Resettlement pay for an array of benefits and services for approved refugees. These include cash and medical assistance, employment preparation and job placement, skills training, English language training, social adjustment and aid for victims of torture. Manchester, being the largest city in New Hampshire, with the largest concentration of social services and employment availability, was the logical choice to place a majority of the state's incoming refugees.

Assisting many of the city's refugees is the International Institute of New Hampshire, a private non-profit that provides recent arrivals with apartments, English classes, jobs, health care and other social services.

"We have sort of two focuses," said Anne Sanderson, vice president of the International Institute, in a recent interview with The Hippo. "We serve over 1,500 immigrants in the Manchester area in our immigration legal department, so we have two full-time immigration attorneys, and two full-time bilingual paralegals. So they serve one population. All the other programs that we have are designed to serve newly arrived refugees. We have the resettlement department -- they go directly to the airport, do pre-arrival services, post-arrival services. We have English as a Second Language; we have an employment coordinator who is responsible for finding their first jobs."

Sanderson said the Institute is under an agreement with the U.S. Department of State to have all employable refugees in jobs within four and a half months of their arrival here.

A refugee must accept the first job he is offered, even if it isn't in his field. Indeed, it wouldn't be unheard of to find a doctor from Nigeria washing dishes here in the Queen City. Like in Manchester's mill days, refugees and immigrants are often forced to take the more undesirable jobs -- those that many of the city's natives feel are beneath them.

Refugee vs. immigrant

The things that make Manchester appealing for refugees -- the concentration of social services and jobs -- also make the city appealing for immigrants, those who come to the United States not to escape persecution, but to make better lives for themselves. These conveniences notwithstanding, one cannot say that assimilation into American society is easy for either refugees or immigrants. It is hard, especially for the immigrant who does not even have the temporary safety net provided to the refugee.

"It is very difficult to establish yourself here in the United States. It's a challenge just to survive," said Bhola Panzey, who came to the United States from Nepal on a student visa in 1997 and moved to Manchester a couple of years ago.

"If you're here as a student you can't work full-time, so you can't pay to live," Panzey said. "You end up working illegal jobs -- cash under the table -- just to survive in this expensive place."

Panzey said he had to sell everything he owned just to make it to the United States.

Panzey, who opened the Nepali restaurant Café Momo on Hanover Street about a year ago, is, like many immigrants and refugees, not able to continue the professional career he held in his homelands. A lawyer by training who practiced five years in Nepal before he came to the United States, Panzey also has bachelor's degrees in economics and computer science and master's degrees in political science and business administration.

Like a number of refugees and immigrants, he saw an opportunity to make a living by sharing the cuisine of his homeland with his new countrymen.

"People ask me why Manchester, what do you see here?' I tell them I don't see anything -- that's why I'm here," Panzey said. "A lot of immigrants will come to places where there's everything because it's easier. But there's more opportunity in places where there's nothing if you can accept the challenge."

Learning from the past

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Though different in nationality and ethnicity than Manchester's first wave of immigrants, the second wave is using many of the same survival strategies used by those who came to Manchester more than 100 years ago, said Yvonne Cyr Bresnahan. She's the executive director of the Franco-American Centre, which has cataloged French-Canadian immigrant life in Manchester.

Like in the mill days, recent arrivals will often unite with family members already settled in the area. Having such connections helps them find jobs more easily and also provides links to their homelands and cultures, which are often hard to find in a sometimes overwhelming American society.

The church also plays a large role in helping new arrivals make their way in their new country, just as it did for the Irish and French Canadians in the 19th century.

"The Catholic Church is universal, it's like coming home," said St. Anthony's Church pastoral associate Elise Tougas. "The church here is a link to their home parishes. It gives them confidence in us and lets them know they can trust us. And when we help them it deepens that trust."

While St. Anthony's has no organized program to help the new arrivals, Tougas said the church and individual parishioners will assist them in whatever ways they can. Over the past few years, she estimates, the church has helped about two dozen families with an assortment of problems.

Not long ago, she said, church members helped a family recently arrived from Rwanda. The family had been provided an apartment, but it was unfurnished.

"And what are you going to do with empty rooms?" Tougas asked. "We helped provide them furniture and curtains."

The church also assists refugees and immigrants with perhaps the biggest obstacle they face in the United States -- the English language. Fortunately, said Tougas, a number of the recent African arrivals hail from traditionally Francophone countries, which means many of their people speak at least some French, making communication easier with translators at the West Side parish.

On the East Side, St. Anne-St. Augustine Church is also a friend of the refugee and immigrant.

"We try to help on several levels," said Father John Gallagher. "We want to meet their spiritual and human needs. We also help on a systemic level. The work is never over, but we have done a lot. The best measure of our success is the number of people in the parish helping out doing these things."

On the spiritual level, the church helps by offering masses in several languages and styles. Four years ago the church began offering an African-style mass once a month. This mass blends English, French, Swahili and Arabic and uses an African-style liturgy. The church also offers weekly Spanish masses and masses in Vietnamese every other Sunday.

On the human side, church parishioners, similar to those at St. Anthony's, provide items of clothing, household goods and furniture to those who need them. But more than that, Gallagher said, the church wants its members to get to know the new arrivals.

"Basically, we want to befriend these people when they first come here, and not just do things for them," he said. "There are lots of things a lot of the immigrants don't know, like figuring out what's important in the mail and what's not."

It seems fitting that St. Anne-St. Augustine's caters to the refugee and immigrant population. When it was founded in 1871, the church was the city's first French parish, serving the religious needs of the newly arrived Québécois. Though its French offerings have dwindled, St. Anne-St. Augustine's still has one English/French mass per week.

"It's interesting that the idea of learning from the old methods of survival still seems to be prevalent," Bresnahan said. "But now it's being done in a community that is now embracing and adjusting to the a new generation of people looking for freedom."

For all of the challenges posed by an increasing number of immigrants and refugees making their homes in Manchester, and the strain put upon local resources -- from the health department to the school district -- nearly all agree that diversity is a good thing and that Manchester is a wealthier community because of it.

-- Will Stewart

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH 

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