Federal grants approved to help elderly refugees in New Hampshire
Mon Timsina communicates volumes with her nimble hands. She waves one at the window when she talks about her friends in Concord, or about the long journeys she used to make from her farm in Bhutan to religious sites. Then she gently, slowly rubs her knees when she talks about how it’s getting harder and harder for her and her friends to get around.
Timsina is 73, and most of her friends in Concord are also elderly refugees who resettled here from Bhutan. And though they can communicate a lot with a gesture and a smile, they can’t speak English, even though they try to learn.
With her broad smile and alert, animated eyes, Timsina loves to joke, laugh and talk.
“I love to interact with all people,” she said through an interpreter at her Concord apartment yesterday.
When she first arrived in Concord four years ago, volunteers brought Timsina and her husband to see the ocean, a local farm and a temple.
“Even to thank them, I don’t have the language skills and that makes me upset,” Timsina said. “I was a farmer back home. I know how to farm. That’s it.”
And so her world is circumscribed to her apartment complex, her friends and relatives.
New federal grants approved this month by the Executive Council will help local agencies fight the social isolation often faced by Timsina and other elderly refugees when they resettle.
In the past 15 years, more than 6,800 refugees have resettled in New Hampshire; more than 1,300 have resettled in Concord in the past decade. The federal government provides certain support through resettlement agencies for the first three months after they arrive, and some support for the first year. Other programs, especially in schools, are available for all refugees regardless of how long they’ve been in America.
The new grants are the first effort to reach out specifically to older refugees, said Amy Marchildon, executive director of Lutheran Social Services, which resettles refugees primarily in Concord and Laconia. The federal funding provides $300,000 to Lutheran and two other groups to use through 2015.
Lutheran plans to hire a bicultural coordinator in the next month who can bridge the gap between the agency and the older refugees, Marchildon said.
“This is a population that may tend to fall through the cracks. Learning new things when one is older may be more challenging, and the younger people have more opportunities to interact with the broader community” through school or work, she said.
She estimated the coordinator would likely identify and visit 50 refugees over the age of 60 each year, and refer about 35 of them to community-based services for elderly residents.
Though no plans are concrete yet, she was excited about several ideas the agency has developed as possibilities, including one focused on intergenerational partnerships.
The vision is that younger refugees who need exposure to American workplace culture could volunteer in partnership with an older refugee in a public setting like a hospital or nursing home, distributing books or visiting with patients.
“It would provide an opportunity for younger refugees who have the language skills and easily transferable work skills to gain experience mentoring older refugees, who get a chance to be out of the house, interacting with more people and improving their language,” Marchildon said. “After a few months, the younger refugee will have experience in a workplace, and hopefully a reference for employment applications.”
Lutheran officials have also discussed forming a speakers’ bureau for elderly refugees who have strong English speaking abilities to visit community groups and share their culture and personal stories, she said.
The Manchester-based Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization founded by refugees, is one of the two other groups that also received the funding. They plan to help older refugees complete training and paperwork to take their citizenship tests. Lutheran’s coordinator would likely work with that group to find and identify people who need that help, Marchildon said.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)