Hometown Hero: Claire Nepa knows what it’s like to build a life, now she helps New Americans do the same

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 09-19-2023 7:16 PM

It’s hard for Claire Nepa to explain how long it took her to find peas in the grocery store without laughing. It sounds ridiculous now – it’s just a can or frozen bag of vegetables.

But when peas sound like “piece” which also sounds like “peace,” asking for help to find them quickly became a complicated ordeal for a non-native English speaker.

Now Nepa doesn’t hesitate when asked what’s the easiest way to help a New American when they arrive in New Hampshire – groceries.

“Those little simple things are such a big thing. You just go with somebody for groceries and it makes a big difference,” she said.

When Nepa arrived in New Hampshire in 2000 with two kids under the age of two, little help or guidance existed for her young family. Two decades later, she’s raised three grown kids in Concord and now is helping other New Americans find their way.

“You see good in America. You do good and you get where you want,” she said. “If you have a good heart, you give back and that’s what I do. I give back.”

To “give back” is loosely defined by Nepa. In some cases, it’s specific, like organizing music for Concord’s Multicultural Festival in Keach Park. In others, it’s connecting with New Americans who are new to the area, meeting them where they are to help them adjust to an unfamiliar place.

“We all come from countries with war,” she said. “How you can help them? How you can be there for them? Show them the way and pull them out from hiding and make them feel like they’re not refugees no more. They’re New Americans.”

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Her approach comes from a place of understanding. Nepa knows what it’s like to leave behind loved ones and a life she built in another country. Arriving in New Hampshire meant starting from scratch.

In the span of three years, Nepa fled two wars. The first was the Rwandan Genocide, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days in 1994, including Nepa’s parents. She was orphaned at 14 years old.

Nepa later met her husband in Rwanda, and together they moved to his native country, Congo. War broke out there too.

In 2000, the young couple was granted amnesty to the United States and were resettled to Laconia through Lutheran Social Services.

“We have a lot of traumatized people here. Refugee people are not refugees because their country is good,” she said. “People are refugees because they are running away from something.”

There she was, a young mother of two who spoke no English, transplanted to this foreign place.

Most people in Africa know Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago (because of Michael Jordan, of course, she said) but New Hampshire? No chance, she laughed.

Soon she began to find ways to make the Granite State hers. In French, Rwanda is often referred to as “le pays des mille collines,” which translates to the land of a thousand hills.

“It’s like New Hampshire, we have a lot of mountains,” she said. “New Hampshire is beautiful. It’s actually close to our country because of the mountains.”

In the two decades she’s called the Granite State home, she’s stopped having to drive to Boston to buy African food. Now some of her favorite dishes and ingredients are found right in Concord on Loudon Road.

“I can go get us food from home,” she said. “It’s changing. It’s good. Good change.”

Community to Nepa is sharing shortcuts with neighbors about the fastest ways home from downtown Concord, which are quicker and more direct than what the GPS might say.

Community is about sitting at Live Juice and seeing her colleagues, her kids’ teachers and coaches, and neighbors pass by on Main Street.

And community is most definitely found at the Multicultural Festival.

“New Americans and Americans get together, eating food, music, just all day long everybody meeting each other. That’s what makes me happy.”

Nepa learned English skills alongside her children, watching the cartoon Calliou and other PBS shows. Then she went back to school and started a career in health care. Her three kids are now all grown, either off to college or graduates. Her daughter Laurette nominated her to be a hometown hero.

“This is the American dream,” she said. “This is why people come here. If here was not good, we wouldn’t be coming here.”

But for the Nepa family, to embrace the American dream is to remember their roots.

Nepa explains it like walking down the street. It’s always good to glance back over your shoulder, but then keep moving forward.

“If you’re looking back, you’re going to hit your toes on the rocks because you won’t be able to go far. You need to keep your eyes in front of you. But you stand first, turn back, you look and say ‘I know why I’m not there,’ and then you keep on going.”

She’s visited Rwanda a handful of times since she left. There’s still a longing for her home country despite her loss there.

“When there’s no people there for you, you just even miss how it smells. Sometimes you just miss trees,” she said.

And she’s shared her story with her kids. New Hampshire is all they’ve known, but that doesn’t mean their parents’ journey isn’t there’s as well, she said.

“I always tell them, my kids, this is where we came from, and why we’re here,” she said. “You got to let them know how we got here and how beautiful where we came from was, because they need to know it’s not all bad.”

Now, she’s showing others that resettling in New Hampshire doesn’t have to be all bad as well. Oftentimes New Americans leave behind degrees and careers that don’t translate to the United States. But give them a few years, and soon they’ll redefine themselves, she said.

Some guidance can go a long way.

For decades Nepa has done this for strangers. But just six weeks ago, her brother relocated to New Hampshire. She’s waited 23 years, since she first arrived, to have him by her side again.

And now, she has a family member to show the ropes.

“I wish somebody showed me these things, I wish I didn’t have to go this far to find these things,” she said. “But if you do get the chance to find it, for people that come after you, you are like ‘C’mon, you don’t have to live the harder life I lived.’ ”

Editor’s note: All this week, the Monitor will publish a series of profiles to highlight Concord’s growing community diversity in advance of the city’s Multicultural Festival, held Sunday, Sept. 24 at Keach Park from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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