In New Hampshire, Christmas Lights Help Welcome New Immigrants

Refugees from Iraq, Nepal and the Congo are being introduced to the way Americans celebrate the holidays — and the way Americans consume electricity.

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Decking a house in thousands of lights is one way to spread holiday spirit. It can also serve as an education in American culture. Ibby Caputo, of member station WGBH, took a tour of Christmas lights in Manchester, New Hampshire. She went with a group of global refugees.

IBBY CAPUTO, BYLINE: On a chilly winter evening, Amadou Hamady ushers people from all over the world onto a school bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS)

AMADOU HAMADY: Let's go. Let's go. Let's go.

CAPUTO: Somali women dressed in brightly-colored burqas sit in front of Nepali Bhutanese men with tilakas painted on their foreheads. Not far behind are two Iraqi girls in Western clothing. Across the aisle, a Sudanese mother in a headscarf. Hamady works for the International Institute of New England, which helps refugees get a foothold in the U.S. Tonight, Hamady introduces these refugees to the holiday spirit, American style.

HAMADY: The holiday spirit is in full swing for some people. For many of the newcomers we have here, this serves as a reminder that they are a stranger in a new home.

CAPUTO: Hamady says this field trip helps refugees feel more welcome, not by celebrating Christmas - many people on the bus are not Christian - but they are experiencing the culture of their new home. He says it's a way to encourage optimism and limit isolation.

HAMADY: Because, again, someone who's coming from a war-torn country who have endured so much, they need strong self-esteem to survive or to rebuild their life in a new country that has completely a different culture.

CAPUTO: On this light tour, that completely different culture is obvious.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Oh, that's awesome.

HAMADY: That's awesome.

CAPUTO: The bus eases by a house dotted in colored lights. The trees and shrubs glow and towering inflatable Christmas characters crowd the yard. 22-year-old Daniyah Kazadi is from Burundi. He's Christian but says he's never celebrated Christmas like this before.

DANIYAH KAZADI: We don't have the lights concept in Africa. It's just - people go to church and come back home, share food, that's all. Yeah.

CAPUTO: Daniyah says he wants to bring his parents and his two younger brothers back to see the elaborate lights. In Burundi, Daniyah's family sometimes would spend a whole week without electricity. When they first arrived in New York City, Daniyah says they were shocked by the lights. That was five months ago.

KAZADI: As time goes by, you get used to it and it becomes a part of your life, so you accept it.

CAPUTO: While the Christmas lights are the main attraction, it's the heated, noisy bus that Daniyah likes the best. It reminds him of rides he took in Burundi.

KAZADI: In the bus, it was warm. So we would open windows, air coming in, heat working, people talking, good smelling. Chicken would be, you know, cockling, cock-a-doodle-doo. So it was really, really good.

CAPUTO: It's very different from here, Daniyah knows, but sometimes you can feel home in the most unexpected places. For NPR News, I'm Ibby Caputo.

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