Photographer Becky Field Documents the Lives of Refugees in NH
A photographer takes aim to capture the joys and sorrows of some nearby neighbors arriving from distant lands.
In the heated debate on a growing global humanitarian crisis, the terms “immigrant” and “refugee” are loaded with political implications. Becky Field is showing that the conversation in New Hampshire can be about new neighbors strengthening, enriching and enhancing the culture and community for all.
Field, a Concord-based photographer, has devoted the past three years to illustrating daily life among the families of foreign-born New Hampshire residents. Her more than 50,000 photographs of people from 48 countries portray their vitality and diversity as well as the commonalities central to the human experience.
“When I started this project, I thought it would be that I’d take pictures for a year, have a little exhibit and then go do something else. Well, I am still doing this, and doing it 24/7, literally,” says the retired professor of natural sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and former longtime wildlife ecologist for the United States Department of the Interior.
The impetus for Field, who works independently through her Fieldwork Photos, was a quartet of recent incidents of intolerance and bigotry. First, three families from African countries had their Concord homes sprayed with detestable graffiti in 2011. Then, in the spring of 2012, a Bhutanese family found a hate-filled note taped to their front door.
“It was horrible. I realized I wanted to do something that I could bring to the table that would be different and unique, and I understood that my photography would be a way to let these people know that we welcome them, and we value them. They are part of our community and we are glad for that,” she says. “The good thing was there was a groundswell of support for the families.”
The inductive argument that all refugees are immigrants but not all immigrants are refugees is valid.
Immigrants are people who have chosen to leave their native countries for a variety of reasons, including a desire for a better job or education, political issues, family re-unification, escaping conflict or natural disaster. Refugees are people forced to flee their home countries because of persecution due to race, religion, ethnicity or political opinion. They have often suffered violence, harassment, wrongful arrest, trauma and threats to their lives and they arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs.
The New Hampshire Refugee Program (NHRP) operates under the New Hampshire Office of Minority Health and Refugee Affairs and assists people in their quest for economic self-sufficiency and successful integration. It is funded through the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Since 1980, 7,500 refugees have made New Hampshire their new home and 3,317 have arrived since 2008. Read more about refugee resettlement in NH here.
“On a federal level the cases come into the country through the US Department of State. Nine national organizations divide up the cases that are coming in and distribute them to their affiliates throughout the United States. Two agencies in New Hampshire are affiliates of national organizations that contract with the State Department to do resettlement,” explains Barbara Seebart, the refugee coordinator for NHRP, who added that the government tries to keep families together.
One agency is Ascentria Care Alliance, formerly named Lutheran Social Services, in Concord, which resettles refugees in the capital city, Nashua and Laconia. The International Institute of New England in Manchester works with people re-homed in Manchester and Nashua.
Since transportation is essential to accessing social and other services, urban areas are preferred for resettlement of refugees, although they and other immigrants are now integrating into communities statewide.
Field’s project is to chronicle their experience and celebrate diversity, and in the spirit of Edward Steichen’s landmark 1955 work “The Family of Man,” she says the photographs show both the differences that refugees and immigrants bring from various countries, cultures and belief traditions, as well as the unifying activities that all people strive for — supporting families, raising children, practicing spiritual beliefs, being part of a community and celebrating traditions both old and new.
Her body of work, classified as documentary photography, is used to recognize and honor the contributions of new Americans in New Hampshire through exhibits and to encourage public discourse on refugee resettlement.
“I’m not working with studio lights and backdrops. I shoot on the fly. I take photographs of people in their natural settings. Another term is environmental photography because you’re not just taking the picture of the person’s face. You’re taking it of their environment, their background, their setting. It’s like the picture tells the story all by itself,” says Field, the former communications director for the state chapter of the American Red Cross, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology and a photography certificate from the two-year program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
Her subjects are thrilled to participate.
“There are very few people during this entire project who have ever resisted. They love having their pictures taken,” she says. “I once asked a Bhutanese friend why they are so enthusiastic. He said he could speak for himself, and somewhat for the Bhutanese community. When he lived in the camps in Nepal, he saved months of his income in order to be able to walk a long distance to a place where he could have one photograph made of himself. It is a sign of prestige, a sign of honor, to have a photograph of themselves, and especially of their family, in their homes.”
When refugees fled to America, they lost their homes, photographs and other possessions. Many have also lost family members, friends and social networks.
“Whenever I take photographs of the immigrants” [she uses the terms interchangeably] “in New Hampshire, I give them a copy. If it’s just a casual photograph, I’ll give it to them digitally. But if it’s a major event like a wedding, baby naming or other important ceremony, then I give them a matted and framed picture,” explains Field. “Now there are many refugee and immigrant households you can go into around New Hampshire and you’ll see one of my photographs. It’s pretty wonderful.”
Field’s work, which is being compiled for a coffee table book expected to be published by Peter E. Randall in Portsmouth in 2015, is not only remarkable, it is significant
“My observation of what her work means to the people whom she photographs is that it helps them establish their identity in New Hampshire as contributing members of the community, which is so important for refugees, in particular, who may have lost their identity as a result of being a refugee and losing their homeland, their cultural practices and their family,” says Amy Marchildon, the director of Services for New Americans at Ascentria Care Alliance.
“To be able to highlight them and feature them through photographs is so special because it helps them reclaim what they have lost over time. It has a profound effect, absolutely, not only for the people she photographs but for the community at large,” Marchildon adds. “I think it gives us an opportunity to embrace who makes up the fabric of New Hampshire. It’s nice to be able to embrace and celebrate the state’s growing diversity. When you strip away the classifications of race, ethnicity, religion and other factors, people are all the same. We share the same hopes, dreams, desires and fears as everyone else. We are all human beings.”
One of Field’s friends told her that she is making the invisible visible.
“It’s so true because I am so honored and blessed to have the opportunity to be part of these people’s lives and celebrations. Through my photography, I want to share that with the rest of the New Hampshire community and to say that these people are fabulously interesting, intelligent, beautiful, colorful, wonderful and fun. The diversity and vitality they bring to our community is something we should be honoring and celebrating, not putting down or rejecting,” she says.
Field has immersed herself within the network of social service and other community providers and partners that focus on diversity and other refugee and immigrant issues, so she possesses a deep understanding of them. Marchildon says that gives her a lens while she’s looking through the camera lens.
It also leads to friendship and trust between the photographer and those who open their doors and their souls to her. She has been invited not only into their homes, but to participate in their sacred religious ceremonies and special celebrations while photographing them.
Burundian Muslim weddings, South Sudanese baby namings, Bosnian traditional dances, Vietnamese Buddhist Mother’s Day ceremonies, Bhutanese weddings of the Hindu tradition, and Bhutanese baby namings, housewarmings, dances and even wakes and funerals are among the multitude of events she’s attended.
“These folks want to show me their traditions and sacred ceremonies. They want to share what’s typical in their culture. I’ve had wonderful support from these people and am making good friends with them,” she says. “In one family from the Congo, I’ve done the son’s wedding, their family reunion where relatives were coming from the Congo, the daughter’s graduation from a college program and her graduation party. I was out of town for her wedding, unfortunately, but she’s had a baby and I did her baby naming ceremony. The connections continue and it’s really wonderful.”
Field’s extraordinary work also covers ESL (English as a second language), other educational classes and citizenship classes and finds people simply at home going about their daily lives. Although her photos are revealing, she remains guarded about her subjects.
“I don’t ask people what their status is because I don’t care if they are immigrants or refugees, documented or undocumented. That doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that these are people who were born outside of the United States and now have come to live in New Hampshire,” she says. “They have settled in New Hampshire and they are part of my community. That is what I am trying to show.
“I haven’t told a lot of the people’s personal stories and that is deliberate. I don’t use their names because I want them to feel safe. I also don’t want them to think I am promoting one person over another. I want to show the breadth of diversity in the community. But my book will contain a little more of their personal stories,” adds Field, who generously houses student interns from the School for International Training in Vermont when they fulfill their two-month internships with Services for New Americans.
America has always been a nation of immigrants, and from the time of the earliest settlers foreign-born people have made New Hampshire home and over time integrated into the community. The history lesson is not lost on the former professor.
“I am starting to realize that out of the tens of thousands of photographs I’ve taken, although it hasn’t been a systematic documentation in any sort of official sampling method, that it is indeed a historic record of the current immigrant community in New Hampshire,” she says. “I’m working with the Manchester Historic Association and coming across some old photographs from the early 1900s of Polish farmers or Lebanese communities, or French Canadian societies and families, and I see that some of those photos look very similar to the kinds of things I’m doing now. When you put a photo of a Polish farmer from 1910 standing in a field next to a cow with one of a Bhutanese woman in a community garden in 2013 pushing a large wheelbarrow, there is a parallel with the way the picture looks as well as in historical continuity. I’m hopeful that in 100 years somebody will go back and see my photographs and say, ‘Here’s a picture of what immigrant communities in New Hampshire looked like then.’”
Field says that this latest wave of immigration is not going to stop. She knows that her meaningful work has had a positive impact on her subjects, and on herself, and she now understands its broader reach.
“I’m starting to see that my photography has the power to change hearts and minds. I’m hoping it will do that. It’s a way of telling not only the community but the decision makers that diversity in our community is important, that we need to recognize it and to honor it, and to include it in important decisions and the policies that are made in our communities,” she says.
“The Big Mix”: Refugee Resettlement, Immigrant Influx and the Changing Ethnic Landscape of New Hampshire
From the time the earliest settlers arrived on the Seacoast in 1623, New Hampshire has become home for countless thousands of people born in foreign lands.
The federal census of 2000 listed 45 countries around the globe where the state’s immigrants and refugees had originated, and since 2008, 3,317 refugees representing a diverse group of ethnic minorities from 30 countries have been resettled in the Granite State and are among the 7,500 who arrived after 1980.
Refugees differ from immigrants, who have chosen to leave their native countries to seek a better life for themselves and their children in the United States.
Refugees have been forced to flee their home countries because of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion and other factors and they have suffered violence, harassment, wrongful arrest, trauma and threats to lives.
Although they arrive with little more than the clothes on their back, and often have had to leave family members behind, they are armed with optimism, dreams and the will to survive.
Once here, refugees are assisted by The New Hampshire Refugee Program (NHRP), which operates under the New Hampshire Office of Minority Health and Refugee Affairs and assists them as they strive for economic self-sufficiency and successful integration. The NHRP is funded through the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Every state in the country and the US territories resettle refugees and family re-unification is a determining factor for where they are sent.
Barbara Seebart, New Hampshire’s refugee coordinator, says, “There is quite a layered program here that helps with integration and it touches on all parts of resettlement needs such as employment, English acquisition, health care, education other than English, transportation training and housing. All types of other orientation topics are covered in the first year or so that they are associated with their agency.”
Nevertheless, the transition is far from easy. “Just think what it’s like for them to first go to the grocery store, where not only fresh food is abundant and available all of the time, but there are 50 choices of cereal. It is overwhelming for them,” Seibart explains. “But for the most part they adjust to life here. The agencies working with them are very experienced and do a very good job.”
It is a misconception that refugees are lazy and do not pay taxes. Despite the cultural and language barriers, the majority find employment within a few months of arrival and are hard workers. Moreover, they make enormous contributions to their new homeland through the sharing of their talents, skills, cultures and customs.
Many of the most significant contributors to America and New Hampshire have been refugees and immigrants, and today’s new neighbors are making a positive impact across the state. But while some Granite State residents welcome them with open arms, others can be resistant.
“It’s a big mix,” says Seebart.
— Lynne Snierson
Events, Classes and Programs
Convergence of cultures can sometimes be a rocky excursion. Other times people bond deeply without so much as an awkward interlude. One thing that can make all the difference is a special event or occasion that lends a little joy, understanding and fun to the equation.
- Conceived by the Laconia Human Relations committee, the Laconia Multicultural Festival just celebrated its 13th year and will make merry again on Sept. 12, 2015. The festival highlights music, arts, crafts and cuisine from various cultures to honor the growing diverse population in New Hampshire. Laconia has immigrants and refugees from all over: Albania, Bhutan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Mexico, Sierra Leone and Turkey, among a long list of others. If you’d like to get involved or learn more about the festival, visit laconiamulticulturalfestival.org.
- Concord’s Multicultural Festival takes place on the Statehouse lawn each year, with a TBA 2015 date. See concordmulticulturalfestival.org for information.
- PeopleFest in Manchester is normally held at Veteran’s Park, but was cancelled for 2014. Check their Facebook page for updates and future plans.
Learning to Converse: Classes and Cafés
With the growing refugee and immigrant populations, ENA and Southern New Hampshire Services (SNHS) teamed up in 2009 to offer more English for New Americans classes. There are 13 regular classes with about 250 students attending each week. Class length and times vary. Aside from classes, ENA hosts Conversation Cafés, holiday dinners, afternoon teas and special courses. To get involved in another culture, visit snhs.org or contact Sue Corby at email@example.com.
The Wide World of Worship
You can experience other cultures while expressing your faith, thanks to the Diocese of Manchester’s multicultural masses. A couple of Sundays during the month, St. Patrick Parish of Nashua and St. John the Baptist Parish of Suncook offer Latin masses. There are also Brazilian Apostolates, Vietnamese Apostolates and Hispanic Ministry. Masses are also offered by language: African mass, Brazilian/Portugese mass, French mass, Spanish Mass and Vietnamese mass. See the schedule here.
The FAFS-NH Facebook page says that FAFS is here to help promote and foster a good relationship between New Hampshire Filipino and American communities. The group encourages social interaction and produces cultural events to nurture good relationships. Since its founding on Oct. 17, 1989, the group has sponsored annual activities: a family picnic at Nashua’s Greeley Park and a Christmas dinner/dance celebration, for example. Contact the group to see how you can participate.
— Catherine Hall