From Uganda to Manchester: A refugee family’s story

They made a home in America with the help of the Manchester community

Refugees Chantal Wizeye, 25, and her mother, Ventina Cyizanye, 51, discuss what it’s been like to make Manchester their home.
Photo by Melanie Plenda

Up until Chantal Wizeye stepped into a refugee camp in Uganda in 1996, home for the then 3-year-old was on her family’s banana plantation, a place that could be raided at any moment by gun-toting soldiers.

At night, her mother, father and uncle would sneak Wizeye and her baby brother out to sleep under the bush. You couldn’t sleep in your house and be sure you’d be safe. And food was scarce.

Now, here she was in her new “home” — a series of makeshift shelters housing thousands displaced by war, genocide and violence.

“I was little, but I remember. They could give us milk.” Wizeye, now 25, says the word slowly, drawing out each letter as though she could still taste it. She closes her eyes, tilts her head back and smiles big. “Oh, my God. Like I swear… like it was so good. They treated us so well.”

After a few months, Chantal and her family were given a small plot of land where they built their house from trees and mud, and waited to be resettled.

When they got their land, they were given seeds to plant a garden. This and small rations of corn meal, and occasionally rice, was what they had to live on. When monsoon rains didn’t wash away their crops, or the sun didn’t dry them to dust, and they were healthy between bouts of malaria, Wizeye said, they were able to grow enough corn and beans to sell and help the rest of her family, who eventually found their way to the camps.

They eventually were able to get a cow, a goat and some chickens, which also helped. Life was good.

They were free, she said, to leave the camp, to go to the market, to go to school, to have a car, if they had enough money, which despite Wizeye and her father being among the lucky ones to get jobs, they never quite did.

This was home — for 19 years — while the family waited to be resettled. People who’d gone through the camps would talk about America and say it was like heaven.

“Because we had lived there for a long time,” Wizeye said, “We had no hope [of going to America].” But then they got a letter saying they were eligible for resettlement.

“We went to the interview,” she said. “They said, do you want to go to America? And I was like, ‘what?’

“For me my goal was, when I heard of going to America, it’s like, ‘I’m going to go to school. I’m sure I’m going to have everything I need.’”

In 2015, Wizeye was allowed to come to America as a refugee. Her uncle and parents had gone ahead a few months before and now it was her turn.

“When I got to Manchester Airport I was like, ‘wow, this is it,” she said, “I think, ‘this is America.’”

Changing faces

New Hampshire is not known for its diversity. The white population is roughly 93 percent. But that number is actually representative of a growing non-white population.

Between 2000 and 2016, the minority population doubled in New Hampshire from 61,600 to 122.100, said Kenneth M. Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at The University of New Hampshire. They accounted for more than 62 percent of the total population increase in the state during that same time period, he said.

This shift may be most evident in Hillsborough County. Hillsborough County has about 30 percent of the population of the state, but almost 50 percent of the minority population in the state lives in Hillsborough County, Johnson said, adding that the minority population is concentrated in Manchester and Nashua.

“That would mean that while much of the state of New Hampshire remains almost entirely white, especially in its adult population, Manchester and Nashua in particular are facing the same kinds of multiracial, multiethnic kinds of experiences that you would see in other urban areas around the United States.”

While one of the drivers of that growth is jobs, another is the number of refugees resettled in and around the city. To date, since fiscal year 2011, 3,177 refugees have been resettled in New Hampshire. Of those groups, 1,242 have been settled in Manchester; 1,291 in Concord and, 622 in Nashua.

According to the NH Office of Health Equity, since 2011 refugees have mainly hailed from Africa and Asia, with a smaller number coming from the Middle East.

Among the largest groups coming into the area are those from Africa. And of the 1,221 Africans resettled in the state since 2011, like Wizeye and her family, 892 were from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“[Wizeye’s] family, they faced conflict in 1994 when there was a Rwandan genocide and had to flee,” said Sarah Bates, interim program manager of community services and employment for the International Institute of New England (IINE) in Manchester, a nonprofit organization that offers resettlement assistance to immigrants and refugees. “Right now the Congolese that we’re seeing, many of them are from the same conflict from the early ’90s.”

The reason is because it takes so long for refugees to be resettled. “On average, it’s actually about 17 to 18 years that people wait in refugee camps before getting resettled,” Bates said. “And even of those who reach that period, only 1 percent of refugees in the world today actually get resettled to another country.”

Overcoming trauma, building trust

Despite the fact they want to start fresh, the trauma they witnessed and endured isn’t so easily erased.

Bates said many refugees who come to New Hampshire suffer from PTSD as a result of their experiences in their home countries. It can be hard to get them the help they need not only because of a shortage of services, but also because therapy is not something that is part of their culture.

“There’s a stigma,” Bates said. “Also then to introduce it with an interpreter as a middle person… How can you build that trust, when trust is such a core part of being able to talk about some of the trauma that people have witnessed?”

Bates said one of the initiatives her agency is developing is a type of group therapy where members of a refugee community get together to talk to get the help they need. She said they are hoping to roll out the details in the next several months.

Co-superintendent of the Manchester School District Amy Allen said that for students in the refugee population in their district, trauma is one of the biggest challenges for the families and students. They deal with that by making sure they are “trauma sensitive,” and responsive to the needs of these communities by working with partners to build trust within those communities.

Wendy Perron, director of English learner instruction for the Manchester School District, said she is building trust by working with the cultural brokers they have in their bilingual liaison team.

“They really are on the ground in the community doing home visits and they network in that way,” Perron said. “If they are connected with one family, that trust begins to build with them. The families are talking to each other and their community and that’s how really the word spreads and they know who to contact, who they’re comfortable contacting.”

Speaking the same language

Another way the district tries to connect with the immigrant population broadly, and the refugee community specifically, is by addressing barriers to communication. There are 58 different languages spoken by students in the Manchester School District, according to school district data.

Allen said they work hard to get translators into the school to work with new students as quickly as possible so they are able to communicate and learn right away. They have also started translating text and voice messages sent to parents into multiple languages and have translators wear headsets at events that can translate into a variety of languages.

At the same time, Perron said, the district also created a program that celebrates the languages students have already mastered. The MSD Multiliteracy Awards were established in 2016 to offer special recognition to students in grades 5, 8 and 12, who demonstrate proficiency in English, and at least one other language.

Perron said the award is meant to not only elevate the fact that being multilingual is a marketable skill but also it’s another way to acknowledge the assets of their multilingual learners.

“Some of the feedback we get from our multilingual parents is that it’s hard for them to see their child’s culture and language change so quickly when they come to the United States,” Perron said. “So we offer a pathway award for fifth- and eighth-graders where we just ask them to keep a log of books they’re reading in English, and then their native language, so that we’re encouraging them to keep those skills going.”

Perron said this program, the only one of its kind in New Hampshire, has become popular and competitive. In fact, she said, there is a committee forming to help other communities replicate it.

Becoming part of the Manchester community

Wizeye, who speaks three languages including English, said for the most part their family, which includes her six brothers and sisters, all still speak their native language of Kinyarwanda in their home.

Although, when she says this, her mother, Ventina Cyizanye, for whom Wizeye was translating questions, chuckles. “You are speaking too much English,” the 51-year-old said, indicating that’s a phrase used in their house often.

Cyizanye, through Wizeye, said without hesitation she has no regrets about leaving Africa, and talks proudly of the four years she’s spent studying English in community classes arranged by IINE. Bates said these classes aren’t just about helping them learn English; they often are ways for newcomers to bond with each other and develop a sense of community.

Wizeye said one thing she misses is gathering with people to practice their traditions and culture like they did in the camps in Uganda.

“So going into the camp we used to have, like programs where we do activities,” she said. “Sometimes we’d go to visit other villages. There would be like music, dance, some drama and art, like different activities. But here it’s not easy to gather the whole community and do the stuff we used to do back there because we used to practice our own culture. We have our own dances, so we have like, you could share like food, but here — we can do it, but it’s not easy to get into it. People are busy. It’s so not easy to find people.”

Bates said one of the jobs of the IINE is to help refugees find each other and form networks with and groups. But she said they also do a fair amount of work integrating them and encouraging them to get involved in the broader Manchester community as well.

This is something that Mayor Joyce Craig, too, says she’s been working on since she’s been in office.

“The diversity that we have in Manchester is something that we’re very proud of,” says Manchester Mayor Craig. “And it’s welcomed and really makes us a unique place in New Hampshire.”

“We’ve worked hard to build and create a culture of collaboration and to make sure that Manchester is a welcoming place for all,” said Craig.

She said these efforts include, among other things, increasing the number of younger and more ethnically diverse people on local boards and commissions and beginning a Mayor’s council on immigration, the formal name of which is still to be determined.

“We have been working probably for the last 10 months,” Craig said. “My thought on this was to ensure that I have connections to the different ethnic groups that are in Manchester. I understand the challenges that they may be facing, but I also understand the good things that are happening so that when we are building policy here in city hall, we’re doing in a way that represents everybody in our community.”

Wizeye and her family have steadily worked to make Manchester their home. She’s worked at Harvey Industries for the past two-and-a-half years and attends Manchester Community College, where she’s working toward a degree in Human Services with the goal of becoming a social worker or case manager. She also manages to help as a translator at IINE.

“What’s so amazing,” Bates sayid, “is so much of the time when people come and we talk to them about their long-term goals, it’s like, ‘I just want to help people.’ They want to give back, they want to give back for what they’ve received and it’s who they are and they are just so gracious.”

The gratitude is obvious on Wizeye’s face as she speaks.

“In Uganda, it’s hard to find a ride when you’re going to the store or someplace. And like here we have money and at least can afford food… So here, we have a job. We go to work and it’s easy if you are working and going to school, you can do both. And, like electricity. Electricity doesn’t go off. It’s always on unless you cannot afford to pay, which doesn’t happen often…. I can say life here is much better… it’s the best.”

Melanie Plenda is a frequent contributor to ParentingNH and the project manager of the Granite State News Collaborative.

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