Reps, immigrants bond over lunch

 By GABRIELA LOZADA

NHPR

Published: 03-23-2023 7:17 PM

The cafeteria in the State House basement filled with the smell of cumin, herbs and chicken. Sandra Almonte, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, explained carefully that her authentic Caribbean seasoning is the secret to the success of her Manchester restaurant.

“The empanadas are very popular,” she told lawmakers. “We have beef and vegetarian.”

Besides being a great cook, Almonte is a Latina leader who works to engage the immigrant community on local matters like garbage collection policies, police security and financial education. When the program Welcoming America asked her to be a vendor at their annual State House lunch to connect immigrants and refugees with New Hampshire legislators, she accepted cheerfully.

This is the seventh year the program, funded by the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees, has gathered curious immigrants who want to know how to engage in civics and know their legislators more personally. It is an opportunity for them to share a warm meal from countries like India, Brazil and Nepal.

Around 40 senators and representatives attended the event on Tuesday, and some made conversation with the immigrants fascinated by their State House visit, including Dil Gurung, who is from Nepal.

Gurung said the language barrier makes it difficult to learn more about civics, but surprisingly, having a conversation in person with the legislators made him feel more confident.

“We are learning how different the political situation here is from our country,” he said.

A local Nepali community leader invited Dil Gurung and his friend, Kiran Gurung, to the luncheon. (They share the same last name but are not related.) They said that when they found each other in New Hampshire is when they became a family.

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Both friends talked with Sen. Kevin Avard, a Republican from Nashua. First, they joked about hiking Mount Everest, then talked about how lawmakers can help immigrants feel more welcome.

“One of the things I worry about is folks staying in their little clusters, and we don’t benefit from that,” Avard said.

Avard said more legislators need to get out of their “shy boxes” and mingle with the immigrant community.

“Teach me about yourself, let me learn a little bit, and you will be surprised what kind of enlightenment you get just by learning what other cultures have to say,” he said.

Lawmakers touched on several issues related to immigrant communities. Sen. Debra Altschiller, a Democrat from Stratham, said adult classes for English learners should be a state priority, while Democratic Rep. Mary Heath of Manchester said good public education should include an exemplary English as a second language program.

Rep. Latha Mangipudi, a Democrat from Nashua, was also one of the organizers. She is originally from India and said food is so central in immigrant communities that they wanted to show legislators why it is a great space to form long-lasting relationships.

“My main focus is educating my colleagues that we call this place home,” she said.

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