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Rallying for their neighbors

Last modified: 9/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
In a fitting nod to the scene change, yesterday's Love Your Neighbor rally in front of the State House struck a more political tone than Saturday's family-oriented event at a local park.

Guitarists still joined traditional African drummers for the musical portion of the event, but men and women in business suits replaced the children with colorful face-paintings.

The long list of speakers who took the stage pointed to the recent racist graffiti attack on three African refugee families as a symptom of yet another in a long line of injustices society must band together to overcome.

The graffiti messages - which the police have labeled a hate crime - declare, with slurs, that the city was better before refugees resettled here: "Your subhuman culture has already brought many crimes linked to your mud people," one of the messages reads. Another said "the church is destroying our towns just to save a few

doomed Africans. This is a bad joke on us."

Both events were sponsored by members of the Greater Concord Interfaith Council, with Jason Wells, vicar of Grace Episcopal Church in East Concord, organizing yesterday's rally.

Many of the speakers told the crowd of about 250 that they need to reach beyond attending rallies, holding signs and paying lip service to welcoming refugees to the community.

"Tolerance is good, but we are setting our sights too low," said Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson. "Tolerance beats intolerance by a mile, but it's just not enough. We should give our new neighbors a joyful welcome. They deserve it, and we will all be better for it."

Honore Murenzi, a refugee from Africa who has founded a group called New American Africans to help refugees integrate into their new communities, had specific instructions he made the crowd carry out while still on the state house lawn.

"Say, 'Hi,' to your neighbors. That is how you build a community where people feel welcomed and loved - where you feel belonging. . . . Say, 'Hi,' to everyone you meet, even on the streets," he said.

Retired Rev. Dwight Haynes, who lives in Concord but worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said the graffiti - and the response - reminded him of the struggles of past generations, like Daniel Webster and John Hale's work to end slavery and the soldiers immortalized on the World War II memorial for fighting to end the Holocaust.

"The moral arc of the universe is long, but it is bent toward justice," he said. He then extended the idea of justice to a more political realm.

"The government has a moral duty to care for the poor, sick and elderly," he said, to much applause, before decrying the recent state budget that cut funding for social services, and "the concentration of wealth at the top."

"No wonder some people are angry," he said, "and they take it out on those they see as different, and as receiving a free ride, whether or not that is the case."

Suraj Budathoki, a refugee from Bhutan, said he and his family and friends work hard to integrate and become contributing members of the community.

"I look forward to living in a society where love and compassion and equality shall be the guiding forces," he said after listing the litany of atrocities his people endured in Nepal and Bhutan.

As for the graffiti, "we consider this to be a meager individual. . . . It is not his fault or her fault, it is my fault and our fault. We were not able to teach them the important role of refugees and immigrants in building America."

He called for the city's schools to begin teaching students the history of refugees and immigration in the country, and include chapters on refugee and immigrant contributions to society in class.

"We are not here to hate the hatred," he said, "but to turn the hatred into love and understanding."

Many in the crowd agreed that their attention was not directed at the person or people who wrote the hateful graffiti, but on building connections with their neighbors.

"I want my children to live in a community that loves, respects and welcomes everyone," said Kelly Laflamme of Bow.

The day's event can help create that community by "contributing to all families' feeling safer here," said her husband, David Laflamme.

Carol and Bill Harris, also of Bow, attended the event with their friend Devika Bhandhari and Bhandari's friend Geeta Timsina, who both came to New Hampshire in 2009 from Bhutan.

Bhandari said she's had some problems with neighbors in her apartment complex not wanting to talk with her or her family, but mostly, she's found Granite Staters to be welcoming.

"We have our friends and they love us. They care for us. Those people won't be able to take that away," she said.

Timsina, wearing a salmon-colored sari and traditional Nepali jewelry and markings, said she was glad to see so many people at the event.

"I am happy today because I saw all those people here in support of us," she said. "We are Americans just the same as them and we have red blood in our veins just the same as them."

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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