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Q&A: NH Songa CEO Jean Hakuzimana

NH Songa will be holding a Moving Together Conversations about Immigrants in the Workforce. NH Songa’s CEO Jean Hakuzimana spoke with me about his story coming here from Rwanda and the challenges he faced. Now, he’s helping other immigrants and refugees find a place here in New Hampshire and elsewhere by building trust and helping them integrate into our workforce.

According to NH Songa’s website, the conference’s “attendees will discuss a range of topics from understanding the immigrant community, immigrant talents empowerment, workplace inclusion, DEIJ benefits to the companies, challenges and opportunities in New Hampshire, affirming the contribution of immigrants with facts, state of the state towards immigrants inclusion, policies, and practices to integrate immigrants into the workforce, and the way forward to maintain the momentum.”

With several speakers slated to speak — including James McKim, managing partner of Organizational Ignition; Rob Dapice, executive director/CEO of New Hampshire Housing; Rich Lavers, deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security; among others — the conference is ideal for CEOs, HR staff, employers, service providers, academic institutions, nonprofit organization leaders, staffing agencies, ethnic-based organizations, immigrants, and state and municipality officials to attend.

Q: Can you share more about what it was like when you first came to America?

A: I’m an immigrant, or a new American, born in Rwanda. I’ve been in New Hampshire for the last five years, and basically that’s where I have been so far. When I arrived here, I went to find a job. My first job, and it was challenging for me because prior to coming, I was working in different organizations in Africa, and the last one that I did was within the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). And I was in Chad, which is a country in the north of Africa, and I was their communication specialist. Prior to that, I worked in another organization as a communications expert  in a total of ten years plus experience. So when I arrived here, the first challenge was to find a job. And my mindset was maybe find another job that looks like the one I used to do. And I was wrong. Very wrong.

I tried with the staffing agency, and I remember the first lady that I met, she asked me my resume, and when she looked at it, she said. Are you able to do some (handyman-type) jobs? And I said yeah, I can, but she told me, I feel because of your resume, maybe you will not be able to do that job. But that gave me the idea of what was waiting for me. So then I prepared my mind.

I started my first job in a pre-cast making company for concrete materials. It was very terrifying the first day. I remember going there in the morning. Of course, you had the whole energy because you want to have the check. I have a family of four and I need to make sure that they can find food.

When they (new managers) saw me they asked, ‘can you measure, can you write?’ I said yes. So they took me to a special team, where I  measured inches and feet and whatever and write and cut. They get good money. They were very happy. But the job was tough. You will bend the rebars; you bring the rebars on your back, on your shoulder, and you’re gonna have to to tie them, to use the angles to just to make sure that you have that final product. So that’s a tough job. I remember going back home and my wife said, ‘can you eat?’ I said, ‘I’m not even interested in the food. I’m pretty tired.’

I did that for two months almost. Then I started having back pain. I had an accident back in Africa, and I started feeling that pain coming back, so I said, this is not the way to go. I need to shift my thinking. So I resigned.

One of the memories that I always carry with me is when the supervisor asked me, ‘Do you really understand English?’ I said, yes, I do, but you don’t respond whenever you are working. You’re not socializing with other workers. But what was the issue? The issue was the language that I met. It was swearing, and I don’t swear.

I understand English, but I don’t understand your English. I don’t use your English, so you have to bear with me. I’m a Christian. I don’t use that type of language in my vocabulary.

I can do the construction. I was so happy to learn those skills. The first check in America  was so good. It can be painful, but again, you can bring food on the table, especially when you are an immigrant and when you don’t have enough support that you need in the country.

Q: How did you come to start working with refugees and immigrants?

A: When I left (the construction job), I started looking into health. Where can I go? Probably to be a direct support worker. And I remember picking up the books to run to become a nursing assistant, which I have never thought to be. But I didn’t go with that. However, I went to work at Crotched Mountain.

(It was working in) a house with kids with more tough behaviors, so you need someone who can be there for them in a way that you feel that they are safe. So I worked in that house for the weekend shift, and I also saw an advert online for a case manager for refugees and they want someone who can speak more languages. I can speak five languages, so I applied and I was given the job.

When I was applying, I realized that maybe it’s a job where you will sit somewhere in an office, bringing back those memories from when I was in Africa and feeling like maybe I’m where I want to be or want to feel comfortable. I started as a community health worker, so I had to travel from Concord to Nashua. I had a community of 33 families. They’ve been here (in the U.S.) for 3 or 4 years and they need someone to make a service plan to help them bounce back. Among them, they were homeless. And so you need to help them to go back to the circle of life.

So how can you help someone to get the trust of landlord and to have a house again after being evicted with that record? So we worked with them for two years and I transitioned to become a case manager within the same organization, but again for refugees and immigrants. So that’s where I spent a chunk of my experience here until recently, when the Ukrainians started coming, that’s when I left the job. That time gives me some good memories, (and feeling) as if I have contributed something bigger in society.

Q: What did you do next?

A: I enrolled in college. I went back to do a degree in community development, policies and practice. It was a tough combination, working two jobs, taking care of the family, but also doing those credit courses. It was tough. I found it was one way to bounce back or to feel able to contribute again to the community in a way.

I graduated in 2021, and now  I work with an organization in Maine. It’s called the Ladder to the Moon Network, and they have a publication called Amjambo Africa. And my past experience, my college degree in Rwanda was in journalism, and I’m applying those skills to help immigrants with information dissemination, to inform them on different issues, topics, just to make sure that the society in Maine is diversified. They embrace the diversity and they are informed about who immigrants are, what they bring. And again, for immigrants to know where they can knock or they can get jobs, they can get services they need.

So I’m trying to connect (people) both ways. That’s my current role. I’m a deputy editor to the publication.

Q: Does it bring you joy knowing that you’re helping all these people?

A: It does. There is the moment when I was working in Manchester, we were preparing an apartment for six Afghan soldiers who arrived after the Talibans. I had two senior citizens who were helping me. They were volunteering with me to hang curtains in the windows. And I asked them, ‘Why are you volunteering? Why do you have that interest?’ And then they looked at me. They said, ‘You know what, Jean? If it was me in their country, I would need more than what they need.’ So that’s why I find the courage to volunteer, to help them, to at least to feel safe and home after the horrible Kabul. So for me, helping, working with people that I know they need my support, it’s the most joy that I can experience. I understand how people like me can struggle. It can have an impact on someone’s physical and emotional health.

Q. Do you think there are more resources now to help immigrants, or do we still need to do work in that area to make it easier, more accessible to people who come into the state?

A: I think you can find a gradual improvement. But there is still more to do, especially in New Hampshire. And that’s why you are chipping in with different initiatives to make sure that we have informed citizens. We have informed the neighbors on how to come out and support. And the last experience that I really enjoyed was to see people coming together to form something that was called Neighborhood Support Team. It was an initiative through an alliance where, when I was still working there, we will ask the community to come together if they want and they can host someone in their neighborhood and through their resources. I saw that as an excellent way of making things happen.

I remember taking a family of seven to Portsmouth, and the community was there from the day they arrived at the airport. We were together that night with their van, and then we put the family in the car. They went straight to Portsmouth. That was an excellent. My heart was so happy that night to see community coming together and putting resources together just to help the family, to feel safe, to feel welcomed. So they took care of that family until even today. 

Q: I was looking at New Hampshire Songa’s website, and it said 6% of the state’s self-employed business owners are immigrants. And I feel like that number should be higher. Is that something that the organization helps with, too?

A: After my experiences and what I have been doing as a community worker, plus the skills that I’ve been gaining from the community development graduate courses, I have been working on a theory that the community can drive their destiny. If we empower (immigrants), if we give them the capacity, the resources they need, they can build an impulse of their own development.

I have seen a lot of gaps in the service provision between the immigrants and non-immigrants, or service providers and immigrants. And through those gaps, we can build a coming-together spirit that I call Moving Together Conversations. And people can discuss the way forward.

I’m looking forward to bringing different people in the same room and (having a) debate on a set of topics. That’s why I started with workforce, because I see it as pivotal and the biggest subject that people need to tackle.

I’m looking forward to have employers and immigrants in the same room, policymakers, academics, academic people, or people from academia, just to debate on what is the best way to integrate or to have immigrants in the workforce in New Hampshire. And how can we do better? What are the best practices that we can share to help this be beneficial to both sides? So that’s the the angle that I want to take with the conference that I’m organizing (on Nov. 15 in Concord).

But also I’m hoping to have them in the conversation (about owning a business) as well, because you can help immigrants to build the business, but also to be employers as an extension of their being — not only for other immigrants, but for the whole population. That’s the vision I want to push forward. So where they can get resources, how can they be informed in a manner that they understand? Because to start a business, you don’t need to understand English. You need to have a business idea.

Those are the conversations that I want to bring in the room to empower both sides. Because whenever you power one side and you leave another side, the balance is not balancing. So you need to empower both sides in terms of skills and learning.

When I thought about the first session — called “Understanding immigrants in New Hampshire” — the idea was when you chat with people around you, you can define what type of immigrants you have in New Hampshire. It’s just those guys who are coming, you don’t know how they come. You don’t know why they come. You barely know their skills, their culture, and you know what they can bring. How can I trust someone? After understanding who they are, people can have another idea or another angle of thinking. So that’s the first session.

I want people in the room to learn to understand who are the immigrants in New Hampshire, the type they come from, which country? So it will be moderated by the settlement agencies just to tap into their resources to explain who they have in New Hampshire. But also there are other people who come through other channels like visas, green cards and the asylum process. So we need to understand all that sitting in the room.

Number two, the session will be to mention their contribution in the state’s economy, so that one will be about numbers, figures. When people stop believing in facts, they start believing in nonsense.

The third session is about a debate between employers and immigrants and problem-solving challenges. What are the problems you met when you arrived in your workplace at your first job? What you wish could be done better and the CEO can say, ‘When I started hiring immigrants, this is what happened. This is how it went.’ And I’m expecting those who are courageous to say when we (hired immigrants) we had profit, we boomed. I want that testimony in the room. Just to encourage other CEOs, other human resource personnel, to embrace the the recruitment of immigrants.

The fourth session is about diversity, equity and inclusion benefits in the company. I have James McKim, who is very known, to moderate the session to remind the employers, if you embrace this, it can be profitable. If you don’t, you can lose as well. How can we build an inclusive workforce?

Then, after the whole day, what can we do? How can we build an inclusive workforce? I’m expecting the policymakers to be on the table to just take notes or talk about the policies in place so that people can say, ‘This is good, this is bad, you can improve this.’

Q: What other challenges or hurdles do you think other immigrants have to overcome when they come into the state that you think other people should know about, so that hopefully we can help create a solution together?

A: I’m trying to go with the workforce, but it goes everywhere. You have to be trusted to work. That’s an issue. And you also need to explain who you are and where you come from. But I understand others’ concern. They might want to know basically why you have a neighbor who doesn’t look like you. So you always need to explain it to say again where you come from. And sometimes, why did you come? And that can be embarrassing sometimes.

People come with skills to transition them into dreams, that’s a challenge. It’s a huge challenge. So when I came (to the U.S.), I was feeling maybe I can do communication jobs. I can do journalism job. But nobody could have trusted me. No way. That’s a challenge as well. We have nurses who have been working seven days in the Bronx. We’ve seen a block. But you can’t trust them with your body; you need to be within the United States.

But in the long run, there is a debate in many states where they want to let, for example, foreign physicians to practice, who study from books written in America. How can we be less experienced in terms of sophisticated materials or equipment, but the science is the same? We’ve been using the same books, so at least we need a tiny internship or apprenticeship just to start working as adults. But it’s complicated to be a physician here. So I understand it’s a challenge.

I was in the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire debate recently and the executive director asked me, ‘What is the challenge that you see for the community here?’ And I said, ‘People are so nice here. Good people, good neighbors, and very peaceful ones. But they need a little bit to be informed about immigrants or migration.’

I want people just to make a tiny effort to learn, just to learn even from education doctors, just to learn. Why do people come here? What do they need for support that can help us to give more, to help the population?

The same for education and many sectors. We need to make extra effort. Maybe to innovate the way we have new people in our neighborhood, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our workplace, just to accommodate them. What I’m sure the people who are coming (into the country), they survived a lot. They are resilient. They are ready to contribute. They are very disciplined in many ways, because they are living a second chance in many ways. So let’s make a place for them.

Source : Businesse Review