Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series about New Hampshire immigrants, their challenges and contributions. More than 48,000 immigrant workers made up 6 percent of the state’s labor force in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
MANCHESTER, NH – Mentoring developmentally disabled youth in New Hampshire may not seem like a logical career step for a former bank manager from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But for Bienfait, a Congolese immigrant — he declines to use his last name for reasons of personal safety — the job is highly satisfying.
Now residing in Manchester, Bienfait, who was granted asylum at a hearing in Boston in March of 2020, considers himself blessed to have a job with Sevita, formerly known as the Mentor Network, a nationwide company that provides services to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I work, work, work,” he says. “It’s hard. But the kids are my fun.”
Bienfait flew from the Congo to the United States in 2018, after his son had been kidnapped, and he himself had been threatened. He and his family are Hutu, one of several ethnic groups in Africa that war with one another.
He decided to seek asylum in Canada, unaware of a bilateral agreement that allows the asylum-seeker to apply only in the country first entered.
Detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents near the Canadian border, Bienfait was transferred to the Strafford Country Corrections facility in Dover, NH. He spent 21 tense days there, unable to reach his wife in Africa and unsure of what to do.
A fellow detainee, a man from Haiti, changed Bienfait’s future.
“He knew I could speak French,” Bienfait says. And French was the only language the Haitian could speak.
“Frère peux tu m’aider à traduire?” Bienfait recalls his asking — “Brother, can you help me and translate?” The Haitian needed Bienfait’s help to communicate at a meeting with volunteers from the New Hampshire Immigrant Visitation Program and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
Bienfait agreed. At the meeting, realized that the volunteers could help him, too.
Within days, the New Hampshire Conference United Church of Christ (NHCUCC) and the AFSC, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), had cooperated to raise the daunting $10,000 bail and arrange a host family for Bienfait.
The Unitarian Universalist Church in Manchester, which voted in 2017 to become a sanctuary facility, invited Bienfait to live at the church while waiting to find housing with a host family or on his own.
“He was just an amazing person,” Liz Alcauskas, a church member who worked closely with him, said in a phone interview. “One of the first things he wanted to do was get a library card.”
She said Bienfait checked out several CDs and books about banking in the United States.
“He wanted to integrate how our banking system works with his background.”
A donor bought Bienfait a bicycle.
“That helped me to go to buy food at Market Basket,” he says.
Later he would receive a used car.
“A member of the church in Nashua had a car she wasn’t using,” Ms. Alcauskas said. “We bought it for a dollar and got it inspected. Meanwhile, Bienfait had been studying for the driver’s test when he didn’t even have a car,” she recalled. “Miracles happen.”
Bienfait says the red Toyota hybrid helped to get to his workplace at Crotched Mountain.”
“My angels,” as Bienfait describes them, not only helped him get out of detention, find housing and get transportation, but they also lined up classes in English as a Second Language and provided basic necessities. They got him the job at Crotched Mountain School, his first experience caring for youngsters with disabilities. After the school closed, he joined the team at Sevita.
Volunteers also accompanied him to meetings with immigration officials in Boston and took him to meet with his immigration attorney.
Ann Podlipny, a resident of Chester NH, was his interpreter during the intense process.
“It was a huge relief and a great victory to be granted asylum, finally, after Bienfait’s ordeal,” Ms. Podlipny wrote in an email.
Today Bienfait’s first priority is to bring his wife and their eight children, ranging in age from 5 to 24, to the United States. He thinks he’ll be able to do it in three or four years. Banking still holds some interest for him. So does the possibility to get a doctorate from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
Back in Goma, the Congolese capital, Bienfait said he managed a bank and taught economics at the local university where he’d earned a bachelor’s degree. It was a good life, he says, until his family was targeted by terrorists.
“It was not safe,” he says.
He rented a house in Kampala, the capital of the neighboring country of Uganda, for his wife and children. He booked himself a flight to the United States. After arriving, hearing about the “zero tolerance” program initiated by the Trump Administration alarmed him: “It was always on the television news.”
Under the policy, devised to manage an influx of refugees from Honduras, Bienfait feared he, too, could be sent home, endangering his life. Canada, he thought, might be safer.
He called his wife to share his plan and said he’d call from Canada.
It was the last time they would speak for 21 tense days.
U.S. Customs officials near the Canadian stopped him. They explained that he was not eligible to apply for asylum in Canada because he had landed first on U.S. soil. They assigned him to the Strafford County center.
From there, he tried to call his wife but could not get a phone connection.
“I cried for almost 20 days,” he remembers.
Then he met the ACLU attorney, who telephoned Bienfait’s wife in Uganda.
“When she heard his voice,” Bienfait says, “she was shocked and hung up.”
She couldn’t understand who the attorney was or whether it was safe to talk with him, he explains. The attorney called back and put Bienfait on the phone.
“She cried,” he says. “Me, too.”
Now they’re in touch every day on WhatsApp, planning for the future.
“I was coming from problems,” he says of his arrival in America. “I said to myself, ‘This is a good opportunity. A new life is going to start now.’”
Bienfait’s Advice to Immigrants and Aid Providers
- Learn the English language. People who can help often speak only English or perhaps English and Spanish. Classes in English as a Second Language are sometimes available in detention centers.
Online translation services can be unreliable. “One word can have five or six senses. It’s a big problem.”
- Make sure you and the people you meet really understand each other. “Some detainees have been traumatized where they came from.” Be tolerant.
- Take advantage of pro bono lawyers and volunteers who work with groups like the NHCUCC and AFSC. They have been checked out and trained to help.
- Think of food as a learning process. Some immigrants are unfamiliar with American food and how it’s prepared. Others are accustomed to eating a few small meals a day, not three larger ones. What’s strange at first may become welcome. “Now I love mashed potatoes.”
About this series
New Hampshire was built by immigrants: In 1623, Englishmen established a fishing colony in what is now Rye and Dover on the home of the native Abenaki people. In 1719, the Scots-Irish in Londonderry planted the first potatoes in North America. In the 19th century, the state’s mills were a magnet for workers who formed today’s Irish, Greek, and French Canadian communities.
Today, immigrants from India and China staff the state’s hospitals and tech companies. Ethnic markets and restaurants offer food from Asia and Latin America. Farmers and construction companies rely on workers from Africa and Eastern Europe. While essential to the Granite State’s economy and vitality, immigrants face enormous challenges.