One New Hampshire City, Two Immigration Stories
Pam Colantuono and Minata Toure have never met. But they have a few things in common.
They both live in Manchester. They’re both moms. And the biggest thing they share — the thing that shapes both their lives and how they see the world — is the classic American immigration story.
Let’s start with the heart of every immigration story—the arrival.
Inside Pam’s big house on Manchester’s North end, the faces of Pam’s grandparents and her great grandparents stare out from framed photographs.
"This was the family that immigrated from Greece," she tells me. "This was my grandmother right here."
I ask her why her ancestors decided to head to America a century ago.
"You know, I don’t know, to be honest with you," she says. "But I would assume that it was just one of those things that they said, 'Okay, we’re gonna give a better life for our children.' They rolled their sleeves up and there was a pride, there was an honor. You know: ‘We came to America.’ "
On the west side of Manchester, on the second floor of a condominium complex, Minata’s immigration story starts four years ago, but with a similar explanation.
"I was just looking for a better life," she explains.
Minata grew up in the West African nation of Burkina Fasso. She was the first one in her family to go to school, the first to leave home.
"For (the folks back home), it is so scary," she tells me. "My mom, she is like, ‘I don’t know how you guys can live there.’ All my family, they don’t have an education. So for me having a chance to go to school and knowing that I can have some other possibility, I just decided to try."
And it was a big risk—she came over alone and barely spoke English.
"At the beginning it was really hard," she says. "It was like if you get lost. That is the feeling that I had."
That feeling of getting lost—it’s something Pam doesn’t think her family went through when they arrived. They joined a whole community of Greek immigrants already settled in Manchester.
We decide to drive over town together to the old neighborhood.
"This is where my parents grew up," tells me as we drive the streets. "This is the foundation of where my family came."
Almost as soon as we get there, Pam says the neighborhood today doesn't match up with her memories of it. She points out graffiti and some run-down looking homes.
"And here’s someone just hanging around during the course of the day, hanging around, and some of these houses are in shambles," she says.
This is still an immigrant neighborhood; the people are just from different countries. At the Beech Street elementary school a few blocks from Pam’s grandparents’ old house, the students speak more than 30 different languages.
But for Pam the difference between now and then goes deeper.
"I see a different Manchester, just in this general vicinity," she says. "There was an honor about living here. The streets were clean. There was a watching out -- what they call a paideia, watching out for one another."
Paideia -- that Greek word Pam uses -- it refers to how a culture cares for its own. A kind of support system that Minata hasn’t really found since she came here. She misses the community she had back home.
"Back in my country, when we’re talking about community, you are really together," she tells me. "You don’t need to call before you knock on his door. You can just take your kid and give him to your neighbor because you have to go here and do this and do that. But here it is not like that. It's not like that at all!"
Nothing here in the U.S. has quite replaced the community Minata had back in Burkina Fasso. But the version of community that Pam remembers doesn’t seem to exist for her anywhere. The longer we spend in her family’s old neighborhood, the more upset she gets, until her thoughts turn to how U.S. shouldn’t let anymore immigrants in for a while.
"But why does everyone want to come here?" she asks. "You know. everyone wants to come to America. But we’re also enabling. They also have a responsibility to our country. And it’s not just making a buck and sending it home, which I know many do."
Making a buck and sending it home -- that’s also a part of the classic immigration story. Including for Minata.
Within a year of getting to the U.S., she started working full time as a licensed home nurse aid. And four months ago, she had a baby, and named him Abdallah.
"I’m offering him what I didn’t have, and it feels good, being a mom and knowing you’re giving the best you can," she says. "It's gonna be a good place for me to raise my kid."
The birth of her son is what really made Minata feel rooted here. So did mastering English. But she says there are times she deals with people who want to make her feel like she’s not a real American.
"When they listen to you, and they know you are not from here, they want to make you feel like you are not inside," she says. "Because now I know how to be nice, and how to be rude. Because now I know how to be nice, and how to be rude. What I can do, and what I cannot do. What I can do and what I cannot do. What I should accept, and what I should not accept."
Back at Pam’s house, surrounded by old framed photographs, she tells me how she looks to the past to ground herself today:
"You know when you’re going through some personal struggles and you’re wondering, 'Where is the strength?' I’ll look at my grandparent’s picture all the time and I’ll just think of the fond memories. That’s why I have them out. The memories are so strong, the traditions are so strong. You’re so connected."
That sense of connection—for Minata it’s not so much about where she came from, as where she is right now, and where she’s going.
"I don’t know a lot about America, but I know we’re all immigrants," she says. "Even those that are saying that we're bad? They're immigrants too."
She says nothing politicians say can hurt her.
"You know what I’m really happy about? My son can be a candidate one day too. Because he is an American like Trump, he is an American like Hillary Clinton, he is an American like Barack Obama, he is an American like you, like everybody. I can be outside. But not him. Because he was born here, and he is an American too."