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Sept. 11 tied to surge of NH refugees

M. Brown

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Sept. 11 tied to surge of NH refugees


Union Leader Staff

Telephone Credit Union

A slowdown in refugee resettlement since the Sept. 11 attacks contributed to the surge in Somali Bantus arriving in New Hampshire and other cities nationwide, government officials said.

Steep limits were placed on new arrivals in the two years after the terrorist attacks while the U.S. State Department devised new security procedures for refugee admissions and to ensure protection of its employees, department spokesman Louis J. Fintor said.

Once implemented, resettlements increased dramatically, with Somali Bantus given priority status.

"We're dealing with a population that has endured up to three generations living in a desperate situation on the edge of the desert where there has been serious deprivation in terms of food, health care, education and no functioning economy," said Westy A. Egmont, president of the International Institute of New Hampshire.

"There was a recognition by the State Department that this was a particularly vulnerable population that had been caught for too long in an impossible situation," he said.

As a result, there was a surge in Somali Bantus resettling in about 50 cities across the country since last summer, including Manchester, he said.

"The main thing we have to keep in mind is refugee work is rescue work. If we don't do it, these people will perish," said Robert K. Kay, president of Lutheran Social Services of Northern New England, based in Concord.

State refugee coordinator Barbara C. Seebart said her office was prepared to receive the Somali Bantus in the fall of 2003 and hosted two day-long training programs for agencies in receiving cities. Processing difficulties delayed their arrival until the summer, she said.

"We're a response program. We're in the business of saving people from dire situations. So it doesn't always happen in an organized fashion. This is a federal humanitarian program," she said.

By the time resettlements are expected to be completed in March, New Hampshire is projected to have 400 to 500 Somali Bantus living here, Seebart said.

The numbers are not excessively large, but the condensed period in which they arrived and the fact that most settled in Manchester strained the city's capacity to absorb them, city and state officials said. It resulted in a three-month moratorium on most new refugee resettlements in Manchester. It went into effect Sept. 28.

Hardest hit were the city's health and school departments. Public health workers found 34 refugee children suffered lead poisoning in followup testing.

A moratorium is intended to allow city departments, particularly public health workers and private medical providers, to catch up on caseloads while the state reviews how refugee resettlement occurs.

Most Somali Bantus were settled in Manchester because the city has large stock of affordable housing that can accommodate their large families, refugee workers said.

Others were settled in Concord, Franklin and Laconia, Seebart said.

Refugee resettlement is entirely federally funded, said Seebart, whose office is part of the state Office of Energy and Planning and acts as a conduit for federal funds to the voluntary resettlement agencies that have cooperative agreements with the U.S. State Department.

The International Institute of New Hampshire and Lutheran Social Services of Northern New England are the two agencies that have agreements with the State Department to sponsor refugees and provide initial resettlement services, she said.

"The refugees themselves are expected as soon as possible to be gainfully employed and self-supporting and contributing to society," Kay said.

Seebart said 90 percent of refugees resettled in New Hampshire have full-time jobs within four months.

Refugees are a small part of the total foreign-born population in Manchester, said Kay and Seebart.

It has been estimated that about 4,000 refugees live in Manchester, while another 20,000 to 30,000 are immigrants, Seebart said.

Refugees are people who cannot return to their homeland because of persecution or physical threat. Immigrants arrive voluntarily.

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