Helping her family get housing, food & healthcare is a part-time job for New Hampshire woman

Lidia (right), her mom Josephin (center), and sister (left) celebrated Mother’s Day together earlier this year. (Courtesy of Lidia Yen)

For Josephin Yen of Concord, N.H., gardening is a way to clear her head and get out of the house.

“I will go out there,” she said, and “I feel better.”

But gardening isn’t an easy hobby for her these days. After resettling in New Hampshire with her family from Sudan, she worked long hours at a factory that wore her body down. Over a year ago, she was in a bad car accident that left her unable to keep working.

“I try to go, to do the garden and even like to pull a weed, I just crawl,” she said.

Josephin might enjoy gardening, but she really enjoys spending time with her kids. She’s adamant that she doesn’t have a favorite child, but she especially loves it when her 23-year-old daughter Lidia Yen visits from Pembroke.

“I’m the mother. I love all of you, but I just know who is who, which is doing what,” she said with a smile, “You have a good heart….You are lazy….Lidia don’t have all those things. Just for Lidia, is perfect.”

When Lidia hears the compliment, she looks down and smiles, half embarrassed, half flattered.

Lidia juggles a lot of responsibilities. For much of the past year, she worked a full time internship and another part time job at a hospital call center. That’s on top of community organizing work, taking her mom out for dinner for special occasions, and helping her family maintain affordable housing and food.

“I cook a lot,” said Josephin. “I cook rice for my children. I cook vegetable soup… I cook fufu. Ugali, I cook that a lot, it’s my favorite food.”

To make sure Josephin has enough money to buy ingredients to make her favorite dishes, Lidia has to keep proving to the state that her family still needs help paying for food. That means she has to keep tabs on all the money coming into her mom’s home — including her teenage siblings’ income from a hodgepodge of part time jobs and her mom’s medical bills. She’s become her family’s case manager, financial expert, and medical liaison in her efforts to help them hold onto Medicaid coverage, public housing, fuel assistance and more. That work can easily eat up five hours of her already busy week.

And if she falls behind, the consequences are immediate: Her mom and younger siblings might not have enough money for food, gas or other necessities. Living apart from her family this past year and half, even just a few miles away, has made things more complicated.

“It’s been really stressful,” Lidia said. “Part of the problem, with her not getting food stamps some months, is I’m super busy. And she’ll bring the paperwork to me. And then by the time I finish it and send it back, it’s like very close to the deadline. They receive it late and then they reject it.”

For the Yens, maintaining access to programs they qualify for can feel like a constant battle. All too often, there are surprise reversals, like when Lidia lost her Medicaid coverage last year despite special pandemic protections that should have kept it in place, or when Josephin’s disability benefits got slashed because state staff told her she was on another program she said she wasn’t.

Advocates at New Hampshire Legal Assistance said these kinds of issues are not uncommon across many public benefit programs administered by the state and federal government.

Ray Burke, the co-director of the organization’s benefits project, said seemingly small things, like a technical glitch, can result in families wrongly losing critical assistance. For example, Burke said, he’s had clients who upload documents to the state, unaware that the files are unreadable in the state’s system, and then lose their benefits. He said it happened recently to a client.

The state health department “denied them,” he said. “But what should have happened is [they] should have told her that it wasn’t readable and given her more time to submit it a different way or to submit a different copy.”

State officials say they’re aware of some of these problems and working to fix them. They say the issue Burke flagged happens in less than one percent of cases, but that they are analyzing reported cases of the unreadable file issue to figure out why it’s happening.

Burke also thinks the state could be doing more to inform clients about documentation alternatives, and in some cases make programs easier to qualify for. State officials say they are looking at this for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, where they plan to raise the income eligibility limit.

In the meantime, families like the Yens have to come up with their own solutions. It’s why Lidia handles the phone calls whenever possible.

“I, from a young age, had to pretty much speak on behalf of my mom, with her in my presence” Lidia explained. “They treat me differently because I sound like… my accent is not an African accent.”

In the past, Josephin has tried using translation services, but both she and Lidia say it didn’t work well.

Earlier this year, Lidia learned she could get official permission to take calls and manage benefits for her mom, an option she was surprised no state staffer brought up to her in all her years of taking calls with her mom. But even with that new designation, the two said communication has remained complicated. Josephin says she’ll often talk to state staff, and then ask them to follow up with Lidia, but Lidia rarely gets a call.

Lidia grew up in New Hampshire and doesn’t speak her mother’s native language, Acholi. So when she’s helping her mom navigate public programs, she does it in English – evidence to her that making sure her mom understands what’s going on is doable. But when her mom is left to talk to state workers, Lidia finds they often use a lot of jargon and seem not that interested in her mom’s individual needs.

“They don’t really try to understand what she’s saying,” Lidia said.

Karen Hebert, who oversees these programs at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department is trying to better serve Granite Staters of all different backgrounds. Part of that, Hebert said, is building stronger relationships within the state’s immigrant and refugee communities.

“It’s really important that we be able to apply the knowledge and the information that we have about what people really need, not just by way of language, but also culturally,” said Hebert. She also said all staff receive communication assistance training in compliance with federal civil rights laws.

“Whatever training that they do receive, it’s not adequate enough,” said Lidia. “I’m sure my mom’s not the only immigrant experiencing this.”

Josephin and Lidia also feel the weight of racist and inaccurate stereotypes many people hold that immigrants take advantage of public benefits, despite research that has found immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits than U.S. born citizens. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that these stereotypes of immigrants are becoming more widely adopted across the country. It’s left Josephin constantly feeling like she has to shake off the assumptions people make about her.

“I’m a hard worker. I work in the morning. I work in the evening,” she said of her life before the car accident, “The whole time I was busy, but this time I get hurt. Why don’t you help me like the other people?” 

Her ongoing fight to be treated like other people has worn her down.

“I feel like I’m not welcome in this country,” she said. “I feel sometimes like I have to go back, in Africa. Because I am suffering.”

The social safety net available for her in the U.S. is time consuming; she and Lidia have to fight just to use it. But at home in Sudan, Josephin said, there would be something else available for her: community care.

“People can come help me,” she said of her home country, “My village is my house.”

At the same time, Lidia and her other children are building their futures here. So Josephin stays in New Hampshire.

This story was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.