RELIGION

An officer and a refugee: New policeman straddles worlds

  • In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, Abdesselam Baddaoui studies in his class at the police station, where he is one of the newest members of the department, in Manchester, N.H. Baddaoui came to the U.S. as a refugee, born in Algeria and lived in Syria and Lebanon before moving to Manchester. Manchester joins a handful of cities nationwide, mostly much larger, where police departments are specifically recruiting refugees amid a political climate in which some quarters accuse them of taking jobs or, in the case of Muslims, posing a potential security threat. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, Abdesselam Baddaoui studies in his class at the police station, where he is one of the newest members of the department, in Manchester, N.H. Baddaoui came to the U.S. as a refugee, born in Algeria and lived in Syria and Lebanon before moving to Manchester. Manchester joins a handful of cities nationwide, mostly much larger, where police departments are specifically recruiting refugees amid a political climate in which some quarters accuse them of taking jobs or, in the case of Muslims, posing a potential security threat. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, Abdesselam Baddaoui studies in his class at the police station, where he is one of the newest members of the department, in Manchester, N.H. Baddaoui came to the U.S. as a refugee, born in Algeria and lived in Syria and Lebanon before moving to Manchester. Manchester joins a handful of cities nationwide, mostly much larger, where police departments are specifically recruiting refugees amid a political climate in which some quarters accuse them of taking jobs or, in the case of Muslims, posing a potential security threat. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, Abdesselam Baddaoui studies in his class at the police station, where he is one of the newest members of the department, in Manchester, N.H. Baddaoui came to the U.S. as a refugee, born in Algeria and lived in Syria and Lebanon before moving to Manchester. Manchester joins a handful of cities nationwide, mostly much larger, where police departments are specifically recruiting refugees amid a political climate in which some quarters accuse them of taking jobs or, in the case of Muslims, posing a potential security threat. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)  (The Associated Press)

Soon after arriving in New Hampshire as a teenager, Abdesselam Baddaoui met two fellow refugees who accidentally ended up involved in a criminal case because, after being instructed about domestic violence laws, the wife mistakenly believed she had to call police any time she and her husband argued.

"He got mad. She got mad, she picked up the phone, called 911. Police are at the door, and arrest the husband. She didn't understand," he said. "That stuck with me."

Sixteen years later, Baddaoui is one of the newest members of the police department in New Hampshire's largest city, where he hopes to help newer refugees avoid such misunderstandings. He and four other recruits — selected from about 200 applicants — were sworn in last week and are beginning months of intensive training.

Manchester, population 110,000, joins a handful of cities nationwide, mostly much larger, where police departments are specifically recruiting refugees amid a political climate in which some quarters accuse them of taking jobs or, in the case of Muslims, posing a potential security threat.

No one knows for sure how many former refugees are working as police officers in the U.S. But cities employing them include New York, Miami, Houston and Minneapolis, said Robert Taylor, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Others, including some in California, have hired refugees as part-time "public service officers."

"Where there is indeed a fairly significant refugee population, the enlightened police departments are reaching out to those communities and trying to say, 'Let's build some bridges, let's build some trust, let's build a way we can deal with the problems you have in your communities,'" Taylor said.

Such officers help mitigate not just language barriers, but also cultural barriers, Taylor said — for instance, showing fellow refugees that in the United States, the police are supposed to be the good guys.

Baddaoui, 30, was born in Algeria and lived there for 10 years before moving to Syria and then Lebanon. In 2000, his family was placed in Manchester, a place he had never heard of. He remembers going to an internet cafe and coming up with information only about Manchester, England.

He graduated from Manchester's Central High School in 2004 and became a U.S. citizen 2006. He considered pursuing a corporate career after college and had worked in sales, but said law enforcement was always in the back of his mind.

"I felt that I needed to have some sort of purpose, do something that means something to me," he said. "I like the challenge, because of the feeling you get after finishing. When you go through something really hard, I feel like I've done that a few times in my life, and then the feeling of reward afterwards, that's something I relish."

Chief Nick Willard said Baddaoui, like the other new officers, was chosen based on his credentials and, most important, his integrity.

"Given my incredible respect for the resettlement community in Manchester and how they have enriched the city in their own diversity," he said, "I'm excited because he's going to bring a completely different perspective."

About 3,300 refugees moved to New Hampshire between 2008 and 2014, with the largest group coming from Bhutan. Many live in Manchester, which has been trying to diversify its police force, Willard said.

"If you look at your elementary school demographics, that's your future community in 20 years," he said. "If your police department doesn't mirror that, which we currently do not, it doesn't make for the best possible police force."

In the nation's largest Somali community, Minnesota's Twin Cities, the St. Paul Police Department hired its first female Somali officer two years ago. In Maine, Zahra Abu was sworn in this year as that state's first Somali police officer. Abu, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, joined the Portland force in January after earning her bachelor's degree in three years while working two jobs.

Baddaoui said he knows President-elect Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric about banning Muslim immigrants or creating a registry to keep track of Muslims living in the United States has created fear for many refugees.

"At the end of the day, we're all equal here. That's what I was told and that's how I was treated. People need to understand that, and remove the fear factor out of it. Education, especially coming from a place of authority, really does help a lot."