boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

In N.H., a change in political dialogue

Immigrants bring new issues for '08

MANCHESTER, N.H. - The African Market, selling cola beans and Nigerian rice, sits just a few blocks from the usual stops on the presidential campaign trail, but no candidate has come to deliver a sound bite. Two blocks away, the Beech Street Elementary School, where half of the students are immigrants, is waiting to hear from a White House contender.

Yet the stories told in these places are unlike any the candidates may hear in the Granite State's made-for-television settings such as the local diner, country store, or hotel ballroom.

At the Beech Street school, Abidkarim Mallo, 10, whose family fled Nigeria, spoke eloquently for generations of immigrants as he explained softly from behind his small desk: "I like it here because you stay safe and your Mom and Dad work and you go to school."

Mallo's fourth-grade teacher, Dan Scheinman, who volunteered for the Peace Corps in Africa and came here for the chance to teach in a diverse community, spread his arms before his pupils from Nigeria, Somalia, Burundi, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Albania. "This is Manchester right now," he said.

It is not the Manchester, or the New Hampshire, that the candidates or the public usually see during this presidential campaign season - and for understandable reasons. The state is the nation's fourth-least diverse, after Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia. The latest census figures showed about 12,000 African-Americans, 24,000 Asians, 30,000 Hispanics, and 16,000 other minorities out of 1.3 million people.

Yet in the last seven years, a significant immigrant influx has occurred in neighborhoods of Manchester, Nashua, and a few other places, making key pockets of the state much more diverse. Nearly one-third of New Hampshire's population gain of 79,000 people since 2000 are minorities, according to Ken Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

The change is particularly noteworthy in a campaign year when one candidate, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, has highlighted the story of his African father, and another, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, has highlighted his Hispanic background.

Many of the immigrants, especially the refugees, have arrived too recently to have earned citizenship and the right to vote. But their presence here has raised the profile of issues such as immigration and the No Child Left Behind education law, which has a major impact on schools with large numbers of immigrants.

New Hampshire has always been an immigrant magnet, attracting loggers to the northern forests and workers to the mills along the Merrimack River. They came from Ireland, Canada, Italy, Greece, Russia, and many other countries. But the influx abated as logging declined and mills closed in recent decades.

Yet more recently, and with less notice, the state's magnetism for immigrants has once again gained strength, attracting refugees, temporary workers, and visa lottery winners from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Manchester's federal status as New Hampshire's refugee resettlement area has played a key role in reviving this city's reputation as an immigrant stronghold. Many of the families previously lived in refugee camps in places such as Somalia and waited years to come to the United States.

Nasir Arush, 37, who came here as a student seven years ago, remained when violence in his homeland led to the death of a family member in 2002. In the last four years, many other Somalis have followed Arush's path under a federal resettlement program.

"In 2003, I was the only Somali in New Hampshire," said Arush. "Now we have close to 500."

Arush, now deputy director of a program that helps Somalis get jobs, sounded like a classic New Hampshirite as he embraced the state's virtues and provided a moving interpretation of the state's motto. "I really like the idea of Live Free or Die," he said, adding that in Somalia, "We don't really have that freedom."

Arush also likes that "you don't pay a lot of taxes," and he said Somalis have thrived due partly to the state's live-and-let-live philosophy. There are fewer social services than in many other states, which he said "is a challenge at the beginning but in the long term it is more stable. You have to be more self-sufficient."

Perhaps nowhere in New Hampshire is the immigrant population more noticeable than within the walls of Beech Street Elementary School, where some students are swathed in traditional bright African fabrics. The school sits amid a New England urban set piece of triple-deckers, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Coliseum hockey rink, and an old brick baseball stadium, all under the shadow of ornate churches built by earlier waves of immigrants.

Principal Eleanor Murphy, a Massachusetts-born descendant of Irish immigrants, oversees 600 students who speak more than 30 languages and tell extraordinary stories.

Alex Nyamweru, 9, said he was nearly abducted in his native Burundi before being saved by his sister. "We came here because in Africa there was trouble. They tried to take me, and my sister took me on her back," he said in describing their escape from would-be captors.

Half of the students are in a program called "English Language Learners." That presents Murphy with an extraordinary challenge that is particularly relevant to the presidential campaign. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, Murphy said, no distinction is made between students who have spent a lifetime in New Hampshire with English-speaking parents and immigrant children with little schooling or English language background. As a result, Beech Street has been found to be part of a "district in need of improvement," under the standards of No Child Left Behind. In theory, if sufficient progress is not made, Murphy and her teachers could be removed from the school under what would amount to a government takeover.

If candidates visited Beech Street, Murphy said, she would try to explain to them the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act, the future of which is debated frequently on the campaign trail, and tell them about the teachers who come here because of their devotion to teaching refugees.

"I believe that schools should be held accountable to standards," Murphy said. "But they should see where my kids come in and the progress they make during the school year. To hold students that have been in this country for two years to the same standards as kids who have grown up here is unrealistic."

While no presidential candidate has come during this election cycle, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, has visited.

"I would like them to come here, but not just for photo ops," Murphy said of the candidates. Such a visit might have political benefits; a sign on the front door says the school is a presidential primary polling place, with voters drawn from the families whose students attend the school.

The signposts of immigrant life are spread throughout the neighborhood. Across the street from the school playground, a hair salon called Latina Style pulsates with Spanish-language television and customers. Owner Tomas Barrea, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives in Massachusetts, said he opened the shop six years ago after friends told him there was a growing need for a "Spanish barber."

Farther down the street, the African Market is run by Emmanuel Adekoya, a pastor who moved here from Dorchester, Mass., in order to serve African immigrants at his Deeper Life Bible Church.

A customer at the market, Kennedy Emadamertto, who recently fled violence in Nigeria, proudly wears an American flag pin on his hat. He spoke about the value of the vote and said how impressed he was with a speech given in Manchester by Obama, whose father was Kenyan.

Emadamertto said his first name was given as a tribute to President Kennedy, an echo of the way countless immigrant families honored the slain president.

"The man said, 'Do not ask what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America,' " Emadamertto said, paraphrasing a line from Kennedy's inaugural address. He paused, smiled, and said in his deep Nigerian accent: "I am in love with that."

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES