NEW IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: PART 5
An occasional series of articles about immigrants to New Hampshire and the people and experiences that help them learn a new culture and find work, housing and community.
In an industrial building on Vose Farm Road in Peterborough, dozens of shelves are piled high with stacks of coiled, colorful firehoses, destined for fire departments in the United States. This is the New England branch of Kuriyama Fire Products, a division of Kuriyama of America.
Before a single hose leaves Peterborough, it must be tested to make sure it won’t leak under the high pressure required to fight fires.
That’s where Luis, an asylum seeker from Mexico, comes in. His last name is omitted to protect his identity.
Since mid-2023, his job has been to test hoses and send back any that leak. While the pressure at most fire hydrants ranges from 120 to 150 pounds per square inch, Luis said, he tests them under 300 to 400 pounds per square inch.
“Firefighters have too much risk to have firehoses that don’t work,” he explained on a recent tour of the facility. He likes to orient new hires. He shares his work ethic by example, telling them to read the manuals because they can read English better than he can, but to watch him as he demonstrates what to do.
Kevin Gage, the production manager who hired Luis, says he wishes he had more employees like him.
“He’s a hard-working man. He usually gets here early and works hard all day,” Gage said. “He walks in and shakes everyone’s hand. It’s a routine. He’s an asset to us.” Luis has a lot of good ideas, Gage adds, “like putting safety features on equipment.”
Problem-solving comes naturally to Luis, who raised cattle and horses on a ranch in Mexico until it became too dangerous to stay. Finally, one night, without turning on the headlights of their vehicle, he set out for the Texas border with his family, Maria and three children. Luis had a visa from earlier trips to the United States and Canada on cattle business. He and the family were admitted legally through a port of entry to seek asylum.
Volunteers Jumpstart Adjustment
At a shelter in El Paso, the Annunciation House, the family met representatives of what has become Project Home: the Keene-based not-for-profit that assists asylum seekers with housing, education, medical care, legal assistance and other needs as they await court consideration and before they are eligible to work. Through them, on a Zoom call at Christmas in 2019, the family met Hanah LaBarre and Nathan Lyczak, whose home in Keene they would share for more than 18 months.
“Covid arrived just after they did,” LaBarre recalls. “That presented a whole set of new challenges.”
Besides setting ground rules about daily life – where digital devices could be used, when visitors could come, whether candles could be used, when common areas of the house could be shared – LaBarre and Lyczak found themselves making policies around Covid: “We needed to know if the guests went into any other homes and whose? Did everyone wear masks?”
Even though anxiety was high, LaBarre found the guests’ strong family bonds “lovely” and the kids, “delightful, especially Caleb, the little one, who was extroverted, always zipping around the house, playing with us.” Caleb is now in elementary school, his sister Luisa is in middle school and his brother Jonathan is graduating from high school with a scholarship to college.
Luis remembers those first months as difficult.
“Early days are hard because you won’t be able to work,” he said. His first two applications for a work permit were declined without explanation. Maria got hers on the second try. She now works as a housekeeper in a memory care unit at Langdon Place in Keene, an elder care facility.
“The people are kind, loving and friendly,” Maria said. She likes the job but dreams of opening a restaurant someday.
“She’s the best cook I know,” Luis volunteers, and his assessment is echoed by LaBarre and Laura Williams, a Project Home volunteer who tutored Jonathan and enrolled Maria and Luis in the Keene Community Education program for English as a Second Language. When they got jobs, both Luis and Maria had to drop the ESL program because the morning classes conflicted with their work. But Williams has stayed close to the family, especially Maria.
“We’ve spent many hours together making tamales,” Williams said.
Work Permit Brings Independence
Until Luis was approved to work and got a Social Security card, he volunteered for three hours a day three days a week at Stonewall Farm near Keene. When it came time to find a place of their own, the volunteer work paid off. Luis had become a friend of the then-farm manager, and mentioned they were looking for a place to rent. One day his friend asked him to meet at an apartment. Luis thought he might need help repairing something.
After walking through the apartment, his friend asked, “Are you good here?”
“I said, ‘What?” Luis remembers. He couldn’t believe that the apartment was for rent to his family.
NH Training Center Offers New Skills and Certification
The apartment is now homey, bustling with family activities and visits from friends. In the kitchen is a token of Luis’ love and appreciation for Maria: a stainless-steel rolling cart that he designed to give her extra workspace in their kitchen.
He created it at Phaze Welding Technology Center, a welding shop and training school in Peterborough next door to Kuriyama. While Luis was waiting for a work permit, Project Home connected him with training at Phaze to become a certified welder.
Dan Guillou, founder and owner of Phaze, was impressed with Luis’ work ethic, determination and courage in the face of personal losses. Both Luis’ father and his oldest son died in Mexico after he left, and Luis was unable to return for their funerals. Guillou gave Luis a “scholarship” to help Project Home afford the tuition.
“We’re not here to make a buck but to train people,” Guillou said. He launched his business in 2019 and says hundreds have gone through training. There are more than 2 million job openings for welders in the country, he said. Phaze can train 80 to 100 a year. With welding skills and certification “There won’t be a day you don’t work unless you don’t want to work,” he said.
As he got to know Luis, he recognized a hard worker and fellow problem-solver.
“Welders look at a concept and the things they can design to solve a problem. To be good, you have to have vision. It involves a lot of planning.”
Family Works to Rebuild in NH, with Grateful Hearts
Gillou learned that Luis had been such a planner on his ranch in Mexico, where he hired welders when he needed work done. A graduate of Mexico’s National School of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine, Luis has an advanced degree in cattle production and systems engineering.
Luis’ dream is to be a rancher again, in the United States, Guillou said. “With the skills he learned here, he can be a much better rancher. He can do himself what he used to hire done.”
Guillou is committed to helping Luis realize his dream. He’s put him in touch with two brothers in Keene who will make farmland available to launch an organic farm and perhaps, in time, a cattle operation. Guillou located equipment to start with this year.
“I know exactly what to do with that,” Luis said.
Even with all the things that happened, he said, “We’re very lucky to find this place, this city.” He said he’s never felt discriminated against.
“I don’t think anyone realizes what the true cost is to settle a family here in the state,” Guillou said. “It takes an immense amount of resources to get them through a year. There’s no government support for asylum-seekers.”
“One day, we can help, too,” Luis said, “when we have our stuff done — when we are accepted, legal and have our [permanent resident] status. We want to become citizens. It’s a huge goal.”
The hearing on their asylum case is later this year.
For information about volunteering with or donating to Project Home, visit their website
Advice from Luis and Maria
… for other immigrants:
- Have a positive attitude and be patient – very, very patient. “Everything goes slow, like molasses in the wintertime,” Luis said.
- Be smart enough to make it work. Learn how to say, “We need this, not that.”
- If you’re accepted for a job, do the work. Be proud of your job.
…. for hosts and other volunteers:
- Keep going. People are different; they have different problems. Learn from people as they come.
- Understand and ask about cultural differences, including food. Living with a family that ate a lot of vegetables, Luis said he had to tell them, “I’m not a rabbit. I’m a cattleman!”
Advice for hosts from Hanah LaBarre and Nathan Lyczak:
- It takes a big heart. It’s a journey with a lot of uncertainty. “In our case, because of Covid there was no known end-date.”
- Know as much about the person or family as you can before they arrive.
- Step into it. Be open to another culture.
- Know your limits. Know the help you’ll need from others. “It takes a community to make it work: a full team is crucial. “
- Set house rules in the beginning.
- Think through the transportation issues. Can guests walk to school? To resources they need?
- Communication can be tricky. Sometimes you’re not talking in the same language.
- Consider family roles: It was challenging for us that the heads of our guest family were elder to us. “That was different. In Mexico Luis had people working for him in his house.”
Advice for volunteers from Laura Williams, ESL teacher:
- Know what you want to do, and follow your heart.
- You have to be flexible. The core group of Project Home is aware of the difficulty of having volunteers as a support system.
- There are opportunities on many different levels. You can be as involved or a peripheral as your time or patience allow.
- The scenario is different for every person who comes. Each case has to be handled differently. You can’t impose a scenario that worked for one family on another.
Observations from Dan Guillou, Phaze Welding:
- Money spent at the border is wasted. The border wall is mismanaged. The immigration process is mismanaged. There’s got to be a different way.
- A huge workforce in Latin American countries is going to waste or relocating. America should incentivize Latin American governments to help their people.
- Getting involved locally is the first step to solving what is going on in DC and at the border.