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My Turn: A sad reminder: Help for refugees remains critical

Amid an abundance of food and family, Thanksgiving also reminds us of our national roots as immigrants and refugees. My ancestors and others on the Mayflower were not invited by the local population. In fact, those first refugees escaping religious persecution were undocumented, lacking official paperwork to settle on this land. Nevertheless, early accounts tell us that generous and critical help that first year from Native Americans resulted in a bountiful harvest. This welcoming gesture is now remembered in our national day of thanks.

As I pondered the parallels between the English settlers of 1620 and the New Americans today who resettle in our neighborhoods, I received the sad news of a suicide on Thanksgiving Day in one of our refugee communities – a man in his 70s, in the United States for only a few months, and clearly in a place of darkness and despair. This passing will go unnoticed by most in New Hampshire, as there is no obituary or news story.

But members of his community began a flurry of online messages. Most expressed profound sadness and condolences for the family. Some sharply questioned what more fellow refugees and ethnic support groups could do to connect, encourage and comfort new arrivals to New Hampshire.

Any suicide raises anguished questions of “what more could I have done,” though mental health professionals encourage us not to be burdened by guilt after a suicide.

But this tragedy on Thanksgiving Day reminds us again how critically important it is to help and support newly arrived refugees.

Depression seems inevitable, given that refugees, often traumatized by war and torture, are uprooted from their homeland. Then arriving in a new country with high expectations, they face culture shock, language barriers, cold weather and unfamiliar laws. Even when resettling with family members, the feelings of disconnect from everything familiar must be over- whelming.

As refugee leaders challenge each other about needed steps to prevent suicide, we as the “receiving community” must also consider what more we can do.

There are many local volunteers and agencies who work tirelessly to support and welcome the newcomers in our communities. Refugees with Medicaid have access to counseling with translators in community mental health centers. But more help is needed.

In my photography work with immigrant and refugee communities, I find that even small gestures can significantly add cheer, connection and maybe some comfort for our newly arrived neighbors. I encourage all of us to make an effort to welcome the New Americans in our communities. When you notice someone in unfamiliar dress or with a different accent, smile at them. Say hello; often they know at least some English. Learn words of welcome in languages of the ethnic groups in your neighborhood. Listen to their stories. Donate time or money to our state’s refugee support agencies and nonprofits. None of us can do it all, but together we can help to bring some light to the darker side of refugee resettlement.

(Becky Field of Concord, uses photography to document the lives of immigrants and refugees in New Hampshire.)

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