MANCHESTER, NH – On March 25 the basement of Manchester’s First Congregational Church was buzzing with anticipation. Men and women settled into seats neatly arranged around 10 fold-up tables. Conversation and laughter echoed throughout the room. People exchanged handshakes, hugs, and high fives. Then, the overhead lights flickered off and on again, signaling the official start of the first Communication Cafe.
Organized by the Manchester Immigrant Integration Initiative (MIII), the gathering serves as an opportunity for immigrants to assimilate with their new community and culture.
Sue Corby, a long-time instructor with English for New Americans, kicked the meeting off by acknowledging supporters and distributing directions. After her opening remarks, those seated at each table were split into two groups managed by a group leader, and the activities began.
Each group was unique, and mine was no exception. Our group leader, Mary Georges, is a proud, cheerful woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Carol (who asked that I not use her last name) is a Manchester local who is sweet and kind. Tuan and Hiep, two Vietnamese natives, were a unique couple – Tuan, the younger man of the two, was Hiep’s translator for the night.
Despite our differences and diversity as a group, we learned something about one another, our cultures, and even had a few laughs along the way.
Mary Georges moved to Manchester from the Congo by way of Europe, California, Louisiana, and Boston, before settling in here. She has a master’s degree in management and leadership from Springfield College and directs the Victory Women of Vision, a non-profit organization founded to empower women and motivate open discussion of human rights.
“I can say Manchester is my home,” Georges said, a member of the MIII. “I love Manchester, I give a lot to Manchester.”
As an active member of the local community and an immigrant, Georges fit both roles. She was optimistic about the Communication Cafe and its potential for success. “This was the first meeting I saw with a lot of immigrants,” she said, “Fifty percent, at least.”
In fact, there were 35 immigrants and 25 community members for the inaugural coffee talk moment.
Tuan and Hiep were soft spoken at first, but as conversation continued – and as finger snacks made their rounds from table to table – the dynamic duo grew more comfortable. Tuan is young, and has only lived in the U.S. for six months, but his broken English, articulately pieced together, was a testament to the fact that he is working to make strides in his journey as a new American.
Hiep is having a harder time. He was constantly and visibly frustrated with his inability to communicate and understand English. A former wholesale trader and father of five, he said he’s tired of struggling to find work in America, but he never stops smiling, and was happy to test his language skills in a new setting. When discussing our favorite foods, he was quick to key me in to the fact that his is pizza.
As the night came to a close and individuals began to trickle out into the parking lot, it was clear that the first Communication Cafe had achieved its purpose, to begin bridging communication gaps.
Each participant met a few new friends. There were no fights or quarrels. People got along and grew more aware of the attitudes and cultures they come into contact with every day.
Although it was brief and even a little chaotic, the first Communication Cafe will provide a vehicle with which the community can use to continue discussing the complex and growing relationships between people of different backgrounds so abundant in Manchester.
The next Communication Cafe will be held on Thursday, April 23, from 6-8 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 508 Union Street.
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