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.
This is the first in an occasional series, New in New Hampshire, that highlights the personal stories of immigrants in New Hampshire and Granite State citizens involved in their resettlement and success.
It was winter. It was snowing in New Hampshire. She was driving on a highway.
A pick-up truck pulled beside her car. The driver gave her the middle finger. Behind her, the driver of another vehicle did the same.
“At first I wondered, ‘What have I done wrong?’ But then I thought, ‘OK, I’m not a white person. I forgot about that.’ If people can do that to me, what about my friends?”
The Rev. Sandra Pontoh, founder and pastor of the Maranatha Indonesian UCC Church in Madbury, NH, has lived in the United States since 1998 when she arrived in Michigan to study theology at Western Theological Seminary. She had an F1 visa, for international students studying in the United States, thanks to assistance from her home church in Indonesia.
She didn’t foresee that, while she was in Michigan, she would get a call from a group of fellow Indonesians in New Hampshire asking her to form a new congregation.
“They said they’d been going to a white church and needed someone they could understand,” she said. Besides speaking English, Rev. Pontoh is fluent in several dialects as well as Bahasa, the official Indonesian language.
She agreed, moved east, and established what is now the Immanuel-Indonesian Lutheran Church in Newington. A few years later, in 2004, she led the founding of the Maranatha Church in Madbury.
While her main job remains caring for the spiritual needs of her church, Rev. Pontoh said Indonesians also face mundane, down-to-earth challenges, including how to navigate the rules and regulations of the U.S. immigration system.
In 2020 Rev. Pontoh turned the church’s mission committee into New Hampshire Indonesian Community Support (NHICS), a non-profit organization with volunteers to help with matters such as advocating, translating and interpreting, counseling and referrals. On-call to interpret at courts and local hospitals, Rev. Pontoh donates what she’s paid to the non-profit.
About 2,000 Indonesians have settled in New Hampshire, some fleeing religious persecution, Rev. Pontoh said. Many Indonesian Christians arrived after a wave of radical Islam emerged in Indonesia, a majority-Muslim nation, in the late 1990s.
While many of the immigrants had college degrees, Rev. Pontoh said they took whatever jobs they could find, including washing dishes or cleaning houses, being paid “under the table.”
“Imagine,” she said they would tell her, “I never did this in my country. Now I’m cleaning someone else’s toilet.”
As they have learned English and gained work permits, many have found better jobs in manufacturing and other fields requiring their skills, she added.
In recent months Rev. Pontoh’s been fielding frequent calls including from other Indonesian pastors in NH and other states who are concerned about excessive delays in renewing work permits for asylum-seekers in their congregations.
Until last year, the renewals from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services were more or less routine, she said, but now immigrants may wait more than six months, a delay attributed in large part to understaffing at the USCIS.
When permits are delayed, some immigrants lose their jobs because, without USCIS authorization, employers cannot legally retain even valued employees, Rev. Pontoh explained.
The ministers say that economic insecurity and a bogged-down renewal process trigger fear and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for some whose traumatic experiences led them to emigrate. Rev. Pontoh tries to help the immigrants navigate the system.
“These Indonesians are my friends, my family,” she said. Even though her own experience was different, she identifies with their fears.
“We’re always afraid because people will think we’re strangers. We don’t speak English well. We feel we’re not accepted.”
She encourages more friendliness.
“Even to say, ‘Hi, How are you?’ That’s really important. Just a smile. It’s a huge thing. It says, ‘You’re not alone.’”
Rev. Sandra Pontoh’s advice to new immigrants:
- Find someone to trust
- Find someone to help with learning English
- Find someone to contact immigration attorneys or officials on your behalf
- Go to a church or school
- Find a leader who can take you to the office of the person you need to see
Gloria B. Anderson is a former New York Times news executive whose work included editorial and international development for the News Services division. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Zimmer is an associate of the New Hampshire Immigrant Rights Network and a former communications instructor at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. Anderson and Zimmer live in Peterborough. E-mail: email@example.com.