Inside the office of New American Africans, the organizations’ director, Honore Murenzi, is talking to a Congolese refugee named Patrick. It is Patrick’s first visit to the office of New American Africans in Concord, New Hampshire, as the 22-year-old had just arrived from the Congo four months earlier.
There’s not much Murenzi can do for Patrick on this first visit, but he hopes to act as a guide for the young man as he adjusts to life in New Hampshire. “I talk to him, listen to him, see if he has a problem,” says Murenzi. Most often, the problem is that a new immigrant or refugee can’t connect to services, or simply don’t know where to go to get them. Murenzi goes with them, helps them navigate, and translates for them. “I meet them. We talk about everything. So I try to give them help, tell them what to do. And we go from there.”
Even with comparatively small numbers, the community that New American Africans represents – immigrants from African countries – is a tiny proportion of the state’s total foreign-born population. The Carsey Institute says that of New Hampshire’s total foreign-born population, 31 percent were European, 27 percent Asian, 19 percent Latin American, and 16 percent Canadian – leaving only seven percent left over for “other” immigrant populations. Census data narrows down number further: in 2011, 4,373 of those foreign-born in New Hampshire identified themselves as African in origin.
Murenzi felt the race disparity acutely during his first months in the United States, back in 2001. “For three months, it was terrible. It was very white people. White, white, white, white,” he says. Overall, only 1.3 percent of New Hampshire’s population identify themselves as black – only 17,131 persons total.
The office of the New American Africans sits nestled inside the crook of an L-shaped hallway on the second floor of Number 4 Park Street, less than 200 steps from the New Hampshire Capitol Building. Because of the two doors, one on each side of the “L” hallway, the office enjoys an advantage in position among the dozens of other non-profit or state-funded headquarters.
The office of Honore Murenzi lies at the top of a narrow staircase, past doors labeled “League of Women Voters of NH” and “Michael G. Gfroerer, Esquire.” The hallway is patched with bright yellow signs that read “Love Your Neighbor,” with the word “Neighbor” emphasized in dramatic reverse-block lettering.
Murenzi’s office reflects the eight-year history of the organization. File cabinets fill every open space and stacks of binders and manila-enveloped sheets of paper lie across every surface. Murenzi works primarily at a desk with a hefty laptop perched on top of yet more paperwork, but when he meets with someone he pulls his chair out from behind the desk and into the center of the room.
A second room acts as a work area for people to come in and read, do paperwork, or connect to the Internet. Two computers sit at small black workstations in the corner, next to a four-foot high stack of hefty National Geographic volumes bound in maroon leather.
Pinned across the entire length of the wall to my left is a canvas banner that reads “Love Your Neighbor: Cast out fear & Hatred in Concord.” This time, it is the word “LOVE” that is emphasized in yellow and black lettering. Felt-tipped messages of “Concord embraces ALL” and “Love One Another” bleed together on the canvas.
The majority of signs tacked to the wall, in addition to the centerpiece by the computers, are from the three rallies New American Africans held after three recent incidents of hate in the south end of Concord, one in September 2011 and two in August 2012, when immigrant families found graffiti hate messages on the external walls of their homes. The police have not yet been able to establish a connection between the incidents.
It is late, and Patrick has left. With an organized system, Murenzi would have heard of Patrick’s arrival sooner, but he is not worried about missing anything. “It’s like an Africa network, we don’t write, it’s word of mouth,” he says.
Murenzi came to the United States from Rwanda with the help of a friend. Because the friend was working at Harvard University, Murenzi believed he was coming to live in Boston. But the friend and guide lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, a 60-minute drive from the city, which caused some confusion for Murenzi. “When he picked me at the airport, he brought me to Manchester. I didn’t know, I thought it was a big town. Boston was big.”
Murenzi was given a free studio apartment in Laconia, where he settled in. It was two weeks after moving to Laconia that he was first able to understand that he was living in a separate state altogether. He got the message from an advertisement on his television that used the word “New Hampshire.” To his recollection, it was his first time hearing the name.
At first, Murenzi was upset that he wasn’t living in Boston, where he had intended to settle. “But I was there, so I stayed. I learned that New Hampshire was good for children. I had the children who were coming, so I said look, let me stay here.”
New Hampshire holds one of the smallest percentages of foreign-born in the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2010 there were 69,742 people who were foreign-born living in New Hampshire, comprising only 5.3 percent of the state’s total population, compared to the national percentage of foreign-born population of 12.9 percent.
Despite this, New Hampshire’s foreign-born population has been the seventh-fastest increase in the country since early 2000s, according to a recent study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
There were other aspects to Murenzi’s life in New Hampshire that were very difficult at first. He received no help from the state. His only contact from the outside world was his Harvard friend, who would call or visit his studio apartment.
His first language was French, the national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was born and raised, so he bought a French-English dictionary and would point to one word, then another. He said he learned a lot of his English from television, as well.
After his wife and two children, aged 12 and 13, joined him in Laconia, he got a job as a high school French teacher at the private Concord Christian Academy. When he wanted his children to attend the private school and its $6,000 yearly tuition, he took a second job and his wife began to a position at the Association of Christian Schools in New England.
As Murenzi became more and more comfortable with his new world, he began to see the struggles of other immigrants and refugees. “I saw how they were having problems, and I remembered what I knew with the problems. So I begin to try to help.”
New American Africans officially began in 2004, but Murenzi has worked full-time as director of the organization since 2006. There is no membership (“It’s not normal for when you want to help people to ask for a membership”) and he cannot say how many people he has helped.
Because many of the people he works with have no car, he does lots of home visits. According to the Carsey Institute study, more than 50 percent of the foreign-born population in New Hampshire resides in Hillsborough County, located in southern New Hampshire and including the larger cities of Manchester and Nashua.
Despite his time growing up in the Congo, and his years in Rwanda, Murenzi isn’t interested in building a community around specific groups. “I don’t care about Congolese,” he says. “My focus is how can we have something we didn’t have in Africa. Something in common. How can be bring people together so that we can live in peace together?”
He tries an example. “If your family and mine are fighting in Africa, but if they hear that we are together, they can say ‘Wow, they are doing very good there. Why not us?’”
With tax season just around the corner, Murenzi is working to organize a meeting about financial literacy in Manchester, where someone will come in to teach recent immigrants how to do their taxes before the April 15 deadline. This is an important skill to have, but I can hear his frustration when he speaks about this and other events he organizes for his constituents. “They are only interested in how they can survive,” he explains. “Now, it’s about taxes. After that, they don’t want to learn more.”
Despite the fact that he has lived in the United States for more than a decade, Murenzi still seems frustrated by the complicated nature of… well, everything. “It’s too much to learn. Too much. And I don’t know if you Americans understand. It’s too much,” he tells me.
He feels overwhelmed by everything from the red tape and convoluted process of state politics to the overwhelming number of options for products to clean your rug. He tells me that there is money from the government but people don’t know to ask or even begin to figure out the process by which to get it.
“This country is a jungle,” he says. “For me, it’s a jungle. You Americans say that Africa is a jungle. But I find that you live in a jungle. You don’t know yourself, you don’t know your laws, everything you want to hide you write in small print letters.”
Murenzi soon has to drive up to The Heights, an area of Concord east of the Merrimack River, for an English as a Second Language class. Before he leaves, he points out a large mounted photo in the corner of his office. “Do you like that picture?” he asks me. It was a photo of a tiny African-American girl, covered in a black headscarf with white circles in the pattern, clutching one of the bright yellow “Love Your Neighbor” signs. Her mouth is open in a shout, and despite the tear rolling down her cheek, she looks happy.
The photo was from the last rally New American Africans held, after the third incident of hate graffiti in Concord. The rally was held outside the home itself, on Thompson Street, not far from where we sit.
The rally brought together several hundred neighbors, officials, and members of the public to voice their support of the Somali family that lived in the home.
“My wish was Boston, but now I am here, I am very happy. Despite what happened, because of what I do,” says Murenzi. “Sometimes, I say I’m going to leave this job. And then I see for example a kid like that –” he beckons to the photo by the window, “Smiling – all that’s good. And I feel that today I do something.”