In the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, Mohamed Mohamed harbored no illusions about the wealth that might greet him in America, only a vision of a place where his children could be safe for once, and where—if he was willing to work hard—he could earn enough to support his family.
After 10 months in Concord, Mohamed, a resettled Somali Bantu refugee, has learned he was half right.
His family has felt welcome in Concord. Volunteers have helped him interpret his mail and enrolled his children in recreational programs. But now that Mohamed’s front-loaded government aid has run out, he has discovered that his pay as a landscaper—$7 an hour, $280 a week, pre-tax—is not enough to cover his rent and utilities, which can exceed $1,100 a month.
Mohamed has relied on food stamps to keep his seven children and his pregnant wife fed, but his income has not left enough for staples, like soap and diapers. So Tuesday, against his family’s wishes, he will move the brood to Maine. He has no job and no apartment waiting, but he has heard that life there is cheaper and easier for Somali immigrants.
“No one is happy to go to Maine, but they are forced to go,” said Nasir Arush, a Somali translator who assists the Bantu communities in Concord and Manchester.
Lutheran Social Services, a federal subcontractor that resettles refugees in New Hampshire, has placed 68 Bantu immigrants in Concord since last October. Although Mohamed and his family would become some of the first to leave the state, this is not an isolated case, said Arush. The Manchester-based volunteer sees the signs of a looming exodus. He is in the midst of trying to assist four Bantu families in Manchester who have received eviction notices, and he sees that others in that city and Concord are just barely holding on.
“It’s an emergency,” Arush said. “I think people will be on the streets soon.”
But Mohamed and his family have been assisted by a group of devoted friends, locals who provide rides, read to his children, take the family swimming and call Verizon to negotiate complicated bills. Still, the biggest problem faced by Mohamed and other refugees—the high cost of housing—can’t be readily addressed by volunteers.
“The big thing here is that rent is simply too high,” said Ellen Kenny, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at the Rumford School and one of the organizers of the Concord Multicultural Project, a confederation of volunteers who assist the city’s refugees. “It’s just not affordable for people with low income, and that’s true of the Americans that live here in Concord as well as everybody else.”
But the Bantus are having a harder time than other refugees at achieving self-sufficiency because their learning curve is steeper, Arush said. “You have to teach everything,” he said, from how to cross a street safely to how to use a toilet. A persecuted minority in Somalia, the Bantus in Concord fled to refugee camps in Kenya after civil war erupted in 1991. Many of the adults had no education and knew only a circumscribed life; their children had lived only in refugee-camp tents.
Life here can be overwhelming. Mohamed attends English courses but finds it difficult to retain the lessons, he said.
“He said he goes to school, learns something in the morning, but when he comes home (after work) he has a lot of things to worry, he has a lot of things to think, and he forgets everything,”Arush said, translating.