New Hampshire UCC welcomes refugees with open arms

New Hampshire UCC welcomes refugees with open arms

Liz Verity came to the United States from England when her husband took a job here 35 years ago. And while the member of First Congregational Church UCC in Manchester, N.H., was thankful she knew the language, there were many things she didn't know. Verity had never heard of Halloween. She had never had pumpkin pie – actually she had never even seen a pumpkin. It is this experience of being a newcomer in a foreign land that inspires her to connect her church with students from English for New Americans, a program to help refugees learn the language and adjust to life in a new country.

"Coming here, there were a lot of cultural differences," said Verity, First Congregational UCC's interfaith coordinator and outreach committee member. "What these people go through is so much greater. I truly don't know how they do it – my admiration for them is just huge."

Manchester has been designated a refugee resettlement city by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an organization that aims to protect the rights and address the needs of people in forced or voluntary migration. With hundreds of refugees from all over the world coming to Manchester each year through organizations like Lutheran Services, programs like English for New Americans, an initiative through community action agency Southern New Hampshire Services, are vital in helping these people learn the language in order to get jobs and adapt to life in the U.S.

The students are a mix of anyone from children and their parents to seniors, some of who have no formal education and have lived in refugee camps for most of their lives. Instructors from local colleges teach the classes two nights a week, and First Congregational offers its facilities for the classes and also for recreational events like the "Conversation Café," cooking classes and group dinners.

"These events provide avenues for day-to-day communication as opposed to classroom instruction," Verity said.

One of the church's annual traditions is a holiday dinner, on Dec. 13 this year. About 75 students from the English for New Americans program will take part in the traditional American holiday feast with food donated and prepared by 25-30 First Congregational outreach committee volunteers. There are holiday decorations and even gifts, with the goal of providing a truly American cultural experience for the newcomers. The language barrier can make conversation difficult, Verity said, but the hospitality and feelings of camaraderie transcend that.

"The conversations are pretty basic – What's your name? Where are you from? How long have you been here?" Verity explains. "But the fact that we offer that friendship, and their response to it, is rewarding."

The length of time each person spends in the program depends on how quickly they learn, Verity said, adding that the children often learn the language faster and then take part in teaching their parents. Some also end the classes once they find a job, with many of the refugees staying in Manchester to work on area farms. Because most of the students have their own religions, and often had to flee their homeland because of religious persecution, few of them actually worship at First Congregational. But whatever path these individuals take, Verity and First Congregational UCC want them to know the church is there to help.

"We get a rewarding satisfaction from seeing how people truly appreciate the hands of fellowship," Verity said. "As with any mission, you get more out of it than you put in."

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