Big Changes in Little Indonesia

From left: Aaron Djohan and Irene Ireeuw. Photo by Allegra Boverman

Outsiders may see the Granite State as rather homogeneous, a place where the concept of diversity is more theoretical than real. Until they look a little closer. From the French Canadian and Scandinavian enclaves in Berlin, to the Irish, French Canadian and Greek neighborhoods that flourished in Manchester, New Hampshire’s history is deeply rooted in the story of immigrants. While we pride ourselves in our long-held and cherished notions of rugged individualism, the truth is our state is one of communities, an authentic melting pot of ethnicities.

Raude Raychel understands. A native of Jakarta, Indonesia, Raychel came to the United States as a 10-year-old in 1997, along with her father, Chris Schramm, a Pentecostal minister. After arriving in Los Angeles and taking his family on a cross-country bus tour to New Jersey, Schramm eventually settled in Dover, New Hampshire, where he established the Indonesian Pentecostal Church in his new hometown.

“We were on Dover Street,” says Raychel. “We had a three-bedroom house that became a six- or seven-bedroom house. We actually started the church in the home. We would have gatherings right in the home, because everything was so new to us, and we actually had less than 50 people.”

Over the next two decades, the Dover/Somersworth/Rochester area proved to be fertile ground for Schramm and other immigrants from Indonesia. From a church with modest beginnings, Schramm and his daughter witnessed the size of the Indonesian population swell both locally and statewide.

“We saw that this community was growing, from 50 people to 1,000 to 3,000, to now 5,000,” says Raychel, who recently became a United States citizen.

Today, Raychel, a 35-year-old mother of two teenagers, is concerned whether her son and daughter will retain their appreciation of Indonesian culture, and their appreciation of Indonesian customs and traditions. As president of Indonesian Community Connect Inc. in Somersworth, she is uniquely positioned to make sure the culture of her homeland is not only preserved but also celebrated.

“Understanding the value of your culture is very important — it’s a matter of, how are you going to turn it over? A lot of Indonesian families decided to stay here, and raise their families here, and for them, the next generation, not everyone has adapted to the culture,” Raychel says.

“This comes from my experience of working in the school district, seeing a lot of Indonesian kids in that school, and seeing that disconnect,” she says. “They want to be part of their Indonesian community, but they’re not proud of it. That’s when I say, ‘Let’s educate more.’ Not only do we have to educate the non-Indonesians, but we also have to educate the new generations now, and let them be proud of it. If you don’t educate them, if they know nothing about it, how can they be proud of it? How can they carry on? How can they take over this later?”

The answers, she says, are being provided in part by the Indonesian Community Connect, or ICC. The nonprofit organization grew out of Schramm’s original work. However, recognizing that Indonesian immigrants might adhere to any number of religious beliefs — including Christian, Muslin, Hindu and Buddhist — the ICC was established as a community-based entity that could serve everyone.

“Everything that we’re doing here right now is another example of trying to follow my dad. As a pastor, he was really the point of contact pretty much for every type of resource that was needed,” says Raychel.

“He really helped a lot of [those in the Indonesian] community here, opening up our home to them, for new people coming in here,” she says. “He then helped them connect to the agencies to find work. Once they got a job, he would actually bring them to work. And then he would pick them up. He’d do that until they were doing good enough to buy their own car and be on their own. His heart was really about serving the whole community.”

Schramm’s Indonesian Pentecostal Church, says Raychel, “started as a religious organization, but the point was really to create a hub for all of the community. That’s why the Little Indonesian project, the ICC, was established by a group of handpicked people that have the heart and the passion to really serve the community here.”

And that community has grown, she adds. “In the past few years before that, we were still active in creating a lot of Indonesian food bazaars, which is just another way for us to celebrate our culture, and our traditions. But then it becomes a place where all communities are enjoying and celebrating at the same time.”

The ICC got a big boost in 2019, when Mahendra Siregar, Indonesia’s ambassador for the United States (and now Indonesia’s vice minister of foreign affairs), visited Somersworth, and put his substantial political weight behind the project.

“He met with the government of Somersworth, and he said, ‘This must happen. Let’s start this,’” says Raychel. “So, in 2019, we got together and created our team. Then in 2021, we were grateful enough that we’re able to launch the Little Indonesia Project, phase one.”

From left: Ellie Humphreys, of Franklin, Massachusetts, a University of New Hampshire student who works at Little Indonesia in marketing and communications; Raude Raychel, president of Indonesian Community Connect Inc. of Dover; Raychel’s son Aaron Djohan, 15; Irene Ireeuw of Boston, who helps at Little Indonesia; and Ellen Panjatan of Somersworth. Photo by Allegra Boverman

Based in downtown Somersworth, in a rented space on High Street, the ICC Cultural Center officially opened in May with great fanfare. Iwan Freddy Susanto, vice ambassador from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Washington, D.C., Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard, New Hampshire State Sen. David Watters, and representatives of U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and U.S. Rep. Christopher Pappas all attended.

In every sense, the Cultural Center is the physical realization of the ICC mission, serving as a multifaceted clearinghouse for a variety of resources. The diversity of the center’s offerings reflects the diversity of its community. It features a food pantry, which partners with GATHER, a local food donation distributor, to help roughly 150 local families, a gift shop, community support services, and community resources including health care (such as Covid-19 information), immigration, workforce, law enforcement, educational, translation, and interpretation services.

“We really need to help the Indonesian community, and really need to bridge that gap with businesses, with the government, and be the voice for the community, in any way that we can,” says Raychel. “At the same time, we want to celebrate the culture with the communities here. We know that the appreciation will be deeper when we educate the community about what the Indonesian culture is all about.”

Those efforts led to the creation of the ICC’s Little Indonesia Project, a four-phase, long-term vision to establish a more robust Indonesian community in southeastern New Hampshire. The project, which is the first of its kind in North America, is currently in its first phase, using the ICC’s temporary office space — the Little Indonesia Cultural Center — to promote events, programs, business partnerships and the like. The events, including a marketplace and night market, have been well received by the community, exceeding Raychel’s lofty expectations.

The extraordinary success of the Cultural Center’s initial offerings can be attributed to the sheer numbers of Indonesians living in the immediate proximity, and the fact that the targeted initiatives have struck a chord with that population. Armaya Doremi, a Boston resident who helped emcee the Cultural Center’s grand opening in May, says Somersworth was a perfect place for Little Indonesia. Raychel agrees.

“I think that’s because 17% of the total population is Indonesian,” she says, noting that roughly 2,000 Indonesians call the city of 12,000 home. “Percentage-wise, our population here is the biggest in all of the United States.”

The current Cultural Center, though considered temporary, gives Little Indonesia outstanding exposure. “Right now, for phase one, we have great visibility with this location,” says Raychel.

“It’s right at the entrance of the downtown,” she adds. “People see it, and can explore the Cultural Center. They love how we created a new place. Everybody in the community is very excited.”

The accomplishments and recognition achieved during the initial phase have generated a great deal of enthusiasm for the next step. That second phase calls for a permanent location for the Cultural Center (preferably including neighboring park land), and will include a museum of Indonesia with artifacts, artwork and traditional and ceremonial clothing, an expanded shopping center and food hall, a community center, ICC headquarters and a function hall. Phase three calls for an urban park development, ideally adjacent to the Cultural Center’s permanent home.

“Our hope is that the urban park, with the welcoming gate, will serve as an attraction,” says Raychel. “We want to highlight this is one of New Hampshire’s top destinations. That phase will also include a stage for outdoor performances, and an Indonesian island garden.”

Ellen Yohanes, a volunteer of the ICC, models some Indonesian fashion accessories. Photo by Allegra Boverman

The “welcoming gateway” design, unveiled in May, was fashioned by Alfred Byun, a Korean-American designer from Boston, who says he felt a personal connection to the project.

“I’m honored to be a part of this project, which is at its core a celebration of people and culture,” says Byun, design director for ICC’s Little Indonesia Committee. Byun’s wife is from Jakarta, and he adds that they’re a part of Boston’s Indonesian community.

“Growing up second-generation Korean-American has defined much of my upbringing and search for cultural identity, particularly in my youth,” he says. “I’ve grown to love that part about me and realize that being immersed in the myriad influences and cultures, whether Korean, American or Indonesian, has always helped me connect with others in a more meaningful way. This translates to my professional work, where I’m able to combine passion for spatial design with an understanding of human behavior and the cultural context of each project.”

Byun also notes that the ongoing pandemic “has shown us that a ‘place’ only comes to life from the people who engage and experience it,” he says.

“So many of our places, despite their beauty and great design, have been dormant for the past year and half,” he says. “Many people have not had a chance to travel, visit, and experience new culture that is typically experienced through visiting a new place.”

As an example, Byun points out that not many people know that Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world after China, India and United States, and consists of  more than 17,000 islands.

“The Indonesia Cultural Center will showcase not only the richness of its culture and heritage, but it will serve as a beacon for the Indonesian community — a place where people can be proud of, feel celebrated, and, more importantly, can share a part of their culture with others,” says Byun.

“We hope that the very first Little Indonesia project becomes a platform and a truly unique and special place for the celebration of Indonesian culture in America, and, just as importantly, will continue to grow with the community in which it lives,” he says.

Another member of the Little Indonesia design team, Alicia Kosasih, a native of Jakarta who is an interior architectural designer in Boston, echoed Byun’s belief that there are many distinct cultural assets from Indonesia that aren’t well known among the general public.

“Our country is unique in a sense as the largest archipelago-centric country in the world, it provides a natural geographic barrier that results in a collection of incredibly rich and diverse culture between the islands, each with its own expression of beauty through culinary, visual and performing art forms,” says Kosasih. “In my professional practice, I continue to be inspired by my own local heritage, and always try to find opportunities and insert some modern interpretations of Indonesian cultural forms whenever possible.”

Like Raychel and Byun, Kosasih says her vision is “to make Indonesia Cultural Cen-ter a civic hub for the local community as well — a place to gather, share thoughts and provide larger social and economic benefits.”

For Kosasih, it’s about much more than aesthetics. “As a designer, I believe a space can only be considered successful if it goes beyond as a visual statement of standing as a pretty-looking building,” she says. “It needs to have a greater impact beyond that. Our hope is to have the Indonesia Cultural Center located at Somersworth as the hub between the Indonesian community in the state and the larger public.”

There are too many to name in this colorful crew, but the front row, from left, is Raude Raychel, Eke Toar, Calvin Sumual, NH State Sen. David Watters, Somersworth City Councilor-at-large Crystal Paradis, NH State Rep. Wendy Chase, Detty Katsubi (in Indonesian traditional costume), Mayor Dana Hilliard, Kensin Oroh and Luis Kampisboy. Photo by Allegra Boverman

The initial time frame for the first three phases, says Raychel, has been accelerated only because of the tremendous support the ICC has received to date.

“We’re looking to get into phase two in 2023, and into phase three hopefully in the next three to five years,” she says. “We are really moving on a very fast pace right now.”

Still, Raychel says that she and the ICC advisory committee are taking a measured approach to ensure that they don’t take on too much too soon. “We want to make sure we’re very solid without foundation here,” she says. “We’re really taking the time to connect with so many different businesses to take part in the Little Indonesia movement.”

Local businesses, especially those with immediate Indonesian connections, have responded. And thanks to the diversity of the programs provided by the ICC, business owners have a broad selection of causes to support.

“We have so many different layers that you can participate in,” she says. “You could be helping our annual budgeting for operations to make sure that the Cultural Center runs. Or you can support what we’re doing right now to connect people with community and businesses. The workforce demand right now is crazy.”

Finally, phase four of the Little Indonesia Project will focus on business development, and creating a business district that accentuates Indonesian enterprises. That means actively recruiting Indonesians, and Indonesian business interests, to the area. However, involving local businesses through every phase of the project is crucial, says Raychel.

“Connecting with businesses is so important for us to move forward,” she says. “There are so many different layers. We want to make sure that we’re ready here. Because the second that we opened that door with Indonesia, with investors coming in, Indonesian businesses in the United States can actually relocate or branch out at this Little Indonesia location.”

Regardless of which aspect of the project that participants choose to support, Little Indonesia will always focus first on its constituents, says its president.

“This project is built by the community,” says Raychel. “When you build this project for the community, it will last from one generation to the other. So not only do you introduce your culture, you’re opening the door of opportunity. You’re preparing your next generation to actually take over. And for them to take over, they need to understand what Indonesian culture is all about.”

Tricia Sumarijanto, vice chair of Little Indonesia’s advisory board, who lived  in the state from 2009 to 2019, when she moved back to Jakarta, sees the Cultural Center as a tie that binds her community.

“As an Indonesian abroad, I believe we love to connect with our culture and community, and ICC is a place that can help everyone to feel ‘home,’” says Sumarijanto. “I also believe it’s very important to the Indonesian parents, to help their children living abroad to understand their own culture, which is always be part of them and will shape them to be global citizens.”

No doubt, Chris Schramm, who passed away last year after returning to Java, would be proud of his adopted community in New Hampshire.

Find out more 

Indonesian Community Connect Inc.

156 High St., Somersworth, [email protected]
(603) 841-7031,

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