A local group has launched an initiative to bring a handful of asylum seekers to the Keene area and host them here while their asylum cases are pending.
Susan Hay of Keene, one of the team members leading the effort known as Project Home, said the goal is to put up five individuals or families with local host families. The group also plans to organize teams of volunteers to support the hosts, helping out with transportation, interpretation and other services.
“Project Home is, at the heart of things, a grassroots alternative to detention for asylum seekers,” Hay said.
In addition to hosting people in and around Keene, Hay said the group hopes to establish a model other communities can learn from and emulate.
“There’s thousands of towns across the country that would benefit from this and would be able to do this,” she said.
This year saw a surge of migrants at the southern U.S. border, many of them families and children, straining the government’s ability to deal with them and leading to a humanitarian crisis. Many were fleeing Central American countries with high levels of violence.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken controversial steps to limit the numbers of asylum seekers in the U.S., including forcing thousands of people to stay in Mexico as their claims are processed.
Hay said the idea for Project Home germinated earlier this year, amid news of neglect and poor conditions at U.S. government facilities on the southern border where migrant children were detained.
A small group — including people involved in an existing organization, the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership — started meeting and talking about ideas, she said.
“We sort of just realized that, if we want these detention centers to close, if we feel like this is a stain on our country and our values, these people have to go somewhere,” Hay said. “Well of course, they belong in our communities.”
Project Home — which is registered as a nonprofit organization with the state — consists of eight core team members, plus a network of potential volunteers, according to Hay.
The organization is actively seeking people interested in hosting, with the aim of accepting the first asylum seekers around the new year. Hay also said the group wants to hear from people who think they could contribute in some other way, such as offering rides or language help.
When an immigration judge decides whether to release an asylum seeker on bond during that process, one key factor is whether he or she can be counted on to return to court.
As people fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries often lack ties to the U.S., having a host family lined up can be “essential,” said SangYeob Kim, an immigration staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Hampshire chapter in Concord. That way, “they can present to the judge that if I’m released, I could go to this place to stay during my pendency of asylum application.”
Host families and other support networks also play an important practical role, Kim said. Besides housing, they can help asylum seekers navigate an unfamiliar society.
“Most asylum seekers do not really know the United States, because they have never been to the United States before,” he said.
Hay said she expects the asylum seekers to need housing for anywhere from six months to two or three years as their cases are heard.
Mohammad Saleh of Keene, another core team member, said hosting migrants in communities rather than detaining them is both more humane and less expensive.
“It is not adding anything to the taxpayer … and it’s also an alternate, human approach,” Saleh said. “I’m sure nobody is comfortable seeing mothers separated from kids.”
Saleh, who immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1991, has found Keene a welcoming community. He said it can provide the same community to asylum seekers, especially if they are granted asylum and choose to stay.
“It is not too rural and not too urban,” he said. “If it is too urban, then the life is too fast, sometimes it’s difficult to adjust. But it’s close enough that they can slowly integrate,” giving them a “taste of the welcoming spirit of America.”
Those interested in volunteering or learning more can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been updated to include contact info for Project Home.