Manchester—The screams and explosions rocking Tom Barlow’s television speakers round the doorway from his second-floor studio apartment and echo down the hall.
Barlow, 36, is fully relaxed with his door propped open. On a rainy afternoon, he leans against the wall with his shirt off and his feet bare, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray an arm’s length away.
“It’s a very tolerant building,” he says. “People have open minds.”
Barlow was raised just down the road from this building near Kalivas Park, two blocks east of Manchester’s downtown strip. Back then, the neighborhood was predominantly Greek. Growing up, Barlow said, nearly everyone he knew was white.
Today, Barlow is living in one of the city’s most ethnically diverse buildings. His floor alone is home to several Africans, including Sudanese, Congolese and a college student from Burundi. Some of his neighbors are from Bosnia. One man, a 41-year-old living thousands of miles from his wife and two children, is from Iran.
All are refugees, brought legally to this country to escape persecution in their homelands.
“It’s become a melting pot, like Boston,” Barlow said of Manchester today. “Twenty years ago, we were, like, ‘Watch: In 20 years, it’ll be just like Boston.’ Lo and behold, we were right.”
Local politicians have often marveled at Manchester’s “changing face,” a phenomenon fueled by two coinciding factors: the steady arrival of immigrants, including a large number of Hispanics, and the resettlement of refugees from around the globe.
It’s the latter group that has spurred debate in recent weeks, as a committee of local politicians and administrators charged with reviewing resettlement practices in the city declared that Manchester has taken in more than its “fair share” of refugees.
The committee, chaired by city Public Health Director Fred Rusczek, considered the situation in fiscal year 2004, when the city absorbed 364 refugees, according to the report’s count. That number, the committee found, exceeded resettlement totals in 23 states, including Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island.
One statistic seemed particularly jarring: Though Manchester accounted for just 8.4 percent of New Hampshire’s population in 2004, it hosted close to 80 percent of the state’s resettlements.
Rusczek says the influx has jeopardized city services and, by extension, threatened the quality of life for many refugee families.
He plans to present his findings to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen July 11.
Officials with New Hampshire’s two resettlement agencies were outraged by the report’s characterizations. In particular, they decried the claim that refugees are likely to rely on government assistance for years after arriving in the U.S.
“I just don’t understand it. It’s really discriminatory against the refugees,” said Anne Sanderson, director of the International Institute of New Hampshire, a Manchester-based resettlement agency.
At the center of the debate is a dispute over whether Manchester should be taking in the overwhelming majority of New Hampshire’s refugees. The state’s agencies have not placed any refugees on the Seacoast. New Hampshire’s second largest city, Nashua, did not receive any newly arrived refugees until fiscal year 2005, according to statistics kept by the state Office of Energy and Planning.
This was not an oversight, the agencies say. Rather, this is how resettlement agencies have been operating for nearly two decades. Throughout much of the 1990s, in fact, Manchester’s share of the state’s refugee resettlements was significantly higher than it has been this decade, topping 94 percent in 1992.
The main reason: Manchester’s array of urban offerings—specifically its economy, housing stock and transportation system.
A particularly large influx of Somali refugees prompted Manchester officials to enact a three-month moratorium on refugee resettlements in September 2004. Most of those refugees came through LSS.
Since the moratorium’s expiration, New Hampshire’s two agencies have slowed the Queen City’s resettlement rate. Last year, state statistics show, the city took in just more than half of New Hampshire’s 312 incoming refugees, a steep drop from the year before.
LSS has shifted its focus to Concord and Laconia, which together are home to almost 90 percent of the agency’s 97 cases so far this year.