Love Your Neighbor Manchester Kicks Off

MANCHESTER, NH – Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas joined the kickoff dinner for local coalition “Love Your Neighbor – Manchester” last Wednesday night at Unitarian Universalist Church on Union Street.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas (R) and Honore Murenzi.

“It’s a great idea to get together,” said Gatsas to the group, “in case there is a problem to rally around that problem to make sure we can fix it.”

The Manchester division of the “Love Your Neighbor” coalition was formed in September to promote unity among Manchester’s residents and create a safe, supportive, and respectful city.

The organization is a spinoff of the original “Love Your Neighbor” coalition, formed in Concord in 2012 after a string of hate crimes was committed against immigrant residents of New Hampshire’s capital city.

Concord resident Honore Murenzi organized the first Love Your Neighbor rallies in response to the graffiti messages that were found scrawled on the external walls of three separate homes in 2011 and again in 2012. The last “Love Your Neighbor” rally, held outside one of the victimized houses on Thompson Street in Concord, brought together several hundred neighbors, officials, and members of the public to voice their support of the family inside the home.

“The graffiti on the house was impactful,” said Peter Cook of Cook Associates in Hooksett, who describes himself as active and involved in diversity work throughout the state. “But what was more impactful was the reaction.”

The alleged perpetrator of the graffiti attacks, 43-year old Randall “Raynard” Stevens, was arrested in October and is currently being held on home confinement in Pembroke.

Due in large part to the “Love Your Neighbor” rallies in response to Stevens’ alleged crimes, many have seen the incident as one of unity and community building for Concord. “In the midst of danger, the community did not react in a divisive fashion. Instead, Concord identified an opportunity and responded with positive messaging and openness for learning,” wrote Concord Police Chief John Duval in a Concord Monitor editorial on October 20.

This summer, Murenzi approached the AmeriCorps VISTA Project in Manchester with the proposal to expand Concord’s “Love Your Neighbor” campaign to new cities. “He had this idea that it would spread to other cities and be a movement,” said Kerri Makinen, an AmeriCorps volunteer and one of the main organizers of the event.

“Manchester is very lucky that they have not had an incident like Concord had that was racially motivated,” said Kristen Treacy, who works for Manchester’s Department of Health and Community Policing Division. “The hope is that if we form a coalition, that will never happen.

“For me, one of the big pushes in my work is to get residents to talk to each other. If you know your neighbors, if you trust them, if you have a relationship with them, the likelihood of having a violent interaction with them significantly decreases.”

Attendees help themselves to the potluck dinner.

Attendees dig in to the potluck dinner.

The coalition is also intended to provide support in the instance of any sort of hate crime or event of prejudice against the community. “We want to be able to respond quickly if anything happens,” said Makinen.

Members from a number of Manchester organizations attended the potluck on Wednesday, including representatives from New American Africans, Welcoming New Hampshire, and the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.

The bulk of the outreach work has fallen on the shoulders of Makinen, who was surprised at how effective word of mouth and personal invitations through email was at reaching the right people. On Monday, during her walk home, Makinen spotted the flyers she had printed up pinned to a bulletin board through a basement window.

“We all just invited people that we work with, people we know, people we see. And that was how this group came together tonight,” said Treacy.

When it was time to dig into the banquet table full of food, every chair was filled.

On January 20, Love Your Neighbor Manchester will host a breakfast open to the community in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. More information about Love Your Neighbor Manchester can be found on their Facebook page.

Arrest Made Two Years after Anti-Immigrant Graffiti Incidents in New Hampshire

In 2011, three racially-fueled acts of vandalism in Concord, New Hampshire left the community shaken. More than two years later, dogged police work exposed the criminal.

Forty-two-year-old Raymond “Raynard” Stevens, of Pembroke, New Hampshire, was arrested on October 15th. He is being held responsible for four acts of graffiti left between 2011 and 2012 in Concord. The houses that were targeted had racist and anti-immigrant messages scrawled on the homes’ walls with black marker. One of the families, a Somali family living on Perley Street, moved to Texas after the incident.

A poster that was created by students in Concord after hate-filled graffiti was left on the homes of our refugee families.

A poster was created by students for a “Love Your Neighbor” rally, held after hate-filled graffiti was left on the homes of four refugee families in Concord, New Hampshire. (Photo: Tory Starr)

After Concord police were stymied from lack of evidence, a single detective continued to look for paperwork that matched the unique handwriting on the houses. After searching through hundreds of records, the investigator found a handwritten gun permit from Stevens that matched the unique “B” found on the graffiti from 2011.

The arrest has made the entire community of Concord breathe a little easier. “It rocked our community,”  said Concord police Chief John Duval of the 2011-2012 incidents, in an interview for PRI’s The World. Duval detailed how the community rallied around the targeted families after each incidence. “People came out of the woodwork to express their dissatisfaction with this type of behavior and their resolve to be active about speaking about it in a positive way.”

For the complete story on Stevens’ arrest, read Jeremy Blackman’s piece for the Concord Monitor here.

Honore Murenzi: Navigating “The Jungle”

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.

Photo: Tory Starr

The directory at 4 Park Street.

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.

Photo: Tory Starr

The door to New American Africans, in Concord, New Hampshire.

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.”

Photo: Tory Starr

Inside the New American Africans office.

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.”

Photo: Tory Starr

A poster from the “Love Your Neighbor” rally in Concord in August 2012.

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.”