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At a recent conference, a message to NH employers: When searching for new hires, don't overlook immigrants

Jean Hakuzimana, founder of NH Songa, (right) greets incoming Ward 8 City Councilor Ali Sekou at the Moving Together Conversations Conference at the Grappone Center on Wednesday, November 15, 2023.
Geoff Forester
/
Concord Monitor
Jean Hakuzimana, founder of NH Songa, (right) greets incoming Ward 8 City Councilor Ali Sekou at the Moving Together Conversations Conference at the Grappone Center on Wednesday, November 15, 2023.

This story was originally produced by the Concord Monitor. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

Jean Hakuzimana moved to New Hampshire from Rwanda five years ago with a background in communications and a resume that included working for the United Nations. But, his first job in the United States was working for a company making pre-cast molds for concrete.

He'd waited a year and two months for this job — a long 14 months with no work permit in an unfamiliar place. But work was work, especially when trying to support his family.

"The job was tough but the check was good," he said. "That was my humble beginning in this state."

His experience holds true for many New Americans relocating to the state. Despite work experience from their previous country, here in New Hampshire, work opportunities for immigrants can be reduced to unfamiliar industries.

Immigrants can be the solution to the state's shortage of workers across multiple industries, as New Hampshire deals with an unemployment rate of less than 2% and companies are clamoring for employees.

That's part of the message of Hakuzimana's latest endeavor, a one-day conference about the value and importance of immigrants in New Hampshire's workforce by NH Songa, which he founded.

Hakuzimana found his first job through an agency. When he handed his resume over, he was told to re-frame it to be more palatable for manufacturing positions forget his communications expertise or career interests. Yet, he'd had no prior experience in construction.

"The gaps that I have experienced, the challenges that I saw, that I faced, that I've been touched by within my daily life, my fellow colleagues, New Americans, they're facing similar challenges every day," he said.

The name of his organization NH Songa comes from the word "to move" in Swahili. Hakuzimana's vision for the conference was to illustrate that New Americans should not only be celebrated but welcomed into the workforce.

The day-long summit, called Immigrants in NH's Workforce, featured five sessions that included business leaders, academics and New Americans in conversation about how to support resettlement in New Hampshire and enhance the state's workforce with immigrant contributions.

For Christine Tappan, who works for Ascentria Care Alliance, the main resettlement agency in the area, New Hampshire has a rich history of welcoming immigrants into the state and supporting their efforts to resettle and rebuild a life.

Prior to Ascentria, Tappan worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. The story of one of her former colleagues, Nastia Vanyukevych, embodies the success that can come from supporting immigrants in the workforce, she said.

Vanyukevych worked for the Division for Children, Youth and Families for a number of years after immigrating to the United States from Ukraine. She'd attended university in Ukraine and earned a bachelor's degree in math and technology and in New Hampshire she was earning a master's degree in business from Plymouth State.

When Tappan was looking to hire for a data analytics position within DCYF, Vanyukevych came recommended through a professional connection. At the time, the department had never sponsored a visa for an employee. Vanyukevych went on to work for the agency for six years and obtained a green card while doing so. She is now a U.S. Citizen.

It's a success story of immigrant contributions, said Tappan. And a model that employers should follow to strengthen New Hampshire's economy and community by building an inclusive workforce, especially as the state faces an aging population.

"We must ask ourselves, why should there be a difference between two neighbors who both want to work, support their families and contribute to their communities? Is it because one came from Africa, Asia or Latin America? Don't we all come from somewhere?" said Tappan.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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