Mounting challenges for New Americans in face of coronavirus

  • Pastor Clement Kigugu looks over his sermon as Alex Muyoboke works on the sound system before his video streaming to his constituents on Sunday at the International Association of Fire Fighters building in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Pastor Clement Kigugu says this has been a difficult time for many in the community.

  • Pastor Clement Kigugu and Alex Muyoboke work on the system before his video streaming to his constituants on Sunday, March 22, 2020 at the International Association of Fire Fighters building in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pastor Clement Kigugu practices his sermon as before his video streaming to his constituants on Sunday, March 22, 2020 at the International Association of Fire Fighters building in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/28/2020 5:30:27 PM

Thousands of laid-off workers flocked to the state of New Hampshire’s employment security website to file for unemployment in the last two weeks, amid business closures and cutbacks due to COVID-19. So many people tried to access the site at once, it crashed.

Emile Muhire was one of those workers, after he got laid off from his job as a housekeeper at the Hampton Inn in Portsmouth on March 18. Getting on the site, however, was the least of his problems.

Muhire, a new American from the Democratic Republic of Congo, speaks little English, so he wasn’t able to understand the instructions. He didn’t even have an email account to register.

“I had to call other people to help me to apply,” Muhire said, through a translator, last week. “Without help, I was completely lost.”

Navigating the virus has been challenging for some New Americans, some of whom speak only little or no English.

People who have lost their jobs have had a tough time understanding the unemployment process, which is difficult even for native speakers. Children in the school district who are working from home aren’t able to ask for help from their parents.

The Concord School District has tried to find creative ways to engage with students. Social workers and English Language Learners Tutors are video chatting and calling students regularly to keep them on track.

For New Americans who find themselves jobless, and in need of help, they call Clement Kigugu at Overcomers Refugee Services in Concord.

Kigugu, the chief executive officer of the organization, which provides support to new Americans as they adapt to life in Concord, said his phone has been ringing constantly with calls from people in need asking if he can help them file for unemployment or file for benefits like food stamps.

“People are scared,” he said. “They are worried about their families, their homes, their jobs, everything they’ve worked hard for since coming to this country.”

Employment

Like many new Americans, Muhire takes pride in his work. It is a symbol of the new life he is building in America, and allows him to provide for loved ones, who are scattered in refugee camps across the African continent.

For more than four years since he moved to the United States, he has trekked an hour every day to Portsmouth, where he makes beds, cleans bathrooms and removes trash from hotel rooms.

Losing his job was unexpected.

“I was trying to build my life back, and having hope to have a new life again,” he said. “This gives me a lot of fear.”

He lives alone in Concord, and has been isolating himself and trying to follow instructions on how to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s challenging, however, being alone and having no one to lean on to help manage tasks like his unemployment.

He said if he didn’t have Kigugu to help fill out the forms for him, he wouldn’t have been able to do it at all.

Kigugu came to the New Hampshire from Rwanda almost 15 years ago and got a job at a resettlement agency, where he worked as a medical interpreter, case worker and employment specialist. He also started his Christian Pentecost church, “Overcomers Church,” shortly after moving to America.

After years of working in Concord, he realized there were needs in the refugee community not being filled. Parishioners at his church were bringing him mail they didn’t know how to read. They asked him for help making phone calls to the doctor and to help with transportation to appointments.

Kigugu started his own non-profit, not affiliated with his church, to help fill that gap.

In his tiny office on Airport Road, Kigugu helps refugees fill out food stamp, Medicaid and housing applications, create resumes, reads mail or make phone calls for new Amercans who can’t do it themselves. He also helps people with health referrals, transportation to appointments, counseling and English language skills, and hosts a youth and women’s support group.

Kigugu, who now speaks five languages, had to learn English himself when he came to New Hampshire. He said learning English can be difficult for new Americans as they settle into a new culture. Many refugees work 40 or more hours a week – some at night – and have to balance that with tending to their families.

Every day, new Americans line up outside his door, looking for support. However, with the virus, he’s had to shut his doors.

Overcomers

Although Kigugu’s office isn’t open, the needs of his clients are greater than ever.

“Many people are laid off,” he said Wednesday, over the phone. “Yesterday, I had 10 people. Today seven people that need to apply for food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment. They rely on us.”

He spends hours on the phone with agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and Concord Hospital trying to get information to people.

Barbara Seebart, who works for the state refugee program out of the Department of Health and Human Services, made sure pamphlets were sent out to New Americans in their native languages – which was a big help, Kigugu said.

However, some don’t read even in their native languages. He said there is a lot of misinformation about the virus spreading in the community. Some people are saying the virus was a plague sent down by God. Others say young people are completely immune to it. Kigugu said he has been sending all information to the New Americans he works with voice or video messages as well.

The need is to great for Kigugu to keep up with on his own. He is looking to hire local college students who speak English and languages like French, Swahili and Nepali to help guide new Americans through this turbulent time.

He said he gives as many answers to people as he can. Some questions he doesn’t have answers for.

“It’s a very stressful to them. They don’t know what is going to happen. Some of them live check by check, and now it’s almost the end of the month, they have to pay their rent on April 1. How long will it take?” he said, of the wait for unemployment benefits. “Will it cover rent and food? Those are questions without an answer.”

Schools

Duvan Morikawa, a Concord High School senior from Colombia, said he’s never been able to ask his family for help with school work, since they moved to the United States.

“They don’t speak the language. They speak a little bit, but no way near enough to help with school stuff,” he said. “All the help I need, I get when I go to school.

Pascal Zabayo, also a senior, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said many new Americans enrolled in schools in Concord are in the same situation.

“It’s just us – we’re completely on our own,” he said.

For new American students, the virus has forced them to transition to learning mostly from a computer screen at a time when they need in-person support the most.

Seniors like Zabayo and Morikawa have just been accepted to colleges like Plymouth University and New England College. Zabayo wants to study graphic design, music and wildlife photography. Morikawa has dreams of earning a business degree.

However, most new Americans are also dependent on scholarships to be able to go to college.

Concord High School’s school social worker Anna-Marie DiPasquale said she’s been hosting weekly video conferences on Fridays to talk to the kids about how their scholarship applications are going.

On a recent video conferencing call with five students, DiPasquale asked the students what they had been working on in the last week.

“I have a scholarship essay ready for you to review,” Shabin Subba, of Nepal, told her, his video quality cutting in and out.

“I’m really proud of you guys for staying on top of this,” DiPasquale said. “I know this is not what you expected for your senior year, but you all have very big things ahead of you. I hope you know that.”

DiPasquale said almost every New American senior she works with will be the first in their family to attend college in the United States.

Social gathering

On a usual Sunday, Kigugu’s services are an oasis of dancing, music and color.

His parishioners, many of them African refugees, arrive to the Professional Firefighters Building on Bradley St. in bright, patterned clothing, excitedly greeting familiar faces.

Over the course of at least three hours, scripture is read and four different choirs perform. When people feel moved, they stand up and dance. People offer impassioned monologues on the microphone about their joy for God.

Kigugu said it’s a place where people from different backgrounds come together to find community.

“It makes this place, which is foreign, feel like home,” he said.

However, the coronavirus outbreak has changed all of that. Church services are now done remotely. On Sunday, Kigugu was standing in the space almost completely alone. A few volunteer choir singers stood behind him, standing feet apart.

Kigugu said he knows his congregation appreciates being able to connect in some way while attending a physical service is impossible.

However, said some of his parishioners struggled to connect to Facebook and YouTube, because they either didn’t have internet access or didn’t know how to access those sites.

Also, he said he struggled to fill the three-hour service without the community there. People don’t see each other or get a chance to connect. There is no dancing as a group. People don’t get a chance to share what they are grateful for.

There wasn’t anyone there to give testimonials – to thank god for their health, for family or their work. It’s something that would really help the community right now, Kigugu said.

“It’s very, very important to have this place for community – and that’s lost right now,” he said. “Back home, we used to live in refugee camps or in village, and you don’t have time to socialize. When they get here, everybody is busy working, taking care of the kids, so the church  is really a time for them to socialize. It’s also helped them due to stress and trauma from the war, when they meet  again it helps them to feel better. I hope we’ll be back soon.”




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