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As Number Of Syrian Refugees Resettled In Mass. Increases, Community Shows Support05:10
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Refugees pick out items at a clothing drive at First United Baptist Church in Lowell. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Refugees pick out items at a clothing drive at First United Baptist Church in Lowell. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Refugees from around the world continue to find homes in Massachusetts.

The number of Syrian refugees, in particular, has more than doubled here over the last year, despite heated national rhetoric around immigration.

Increased Interest Greets New Refugees

In the basement of the First United Baptist Church in Lowell, newly arrived refugees from Syria and Afghanistan stand shoulder to shoulder with new arrivals from Somalia.

Refugees relocated to the Lowell area look through clothing for something warm. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Refugees relocated to the Lowell area look through clothing for something warm. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

They're all sifting through sweaters, scarves, jackets and hats, looking to stock up ahead of the cold weather, while children hammer away on the keys of an old piano.

"I don't think they're ready for a New England winter, so I think this is really good, really good," says Amanda Mujica of Belmont, who helped coordinate this clothing drive for the refugees. Almost all of them have been resettled through the International Institute of New England, which has been operating in Lowell for nearly a century.

Mujica says she was shocked at the outpouring of donations from around Greater Boston.

"It's been outstanding," she says, a wide smile spreading across her face. "People have come from the North Shore, from the South Shore. I think people keep hearing about refugees and they're trying to think about ways that they can help and I think this was a way that they could, they could make a difference."

Families fill plastic bags from the clothing drive in Lowell. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Families fill plastic bags from the clothing drive in Lowell. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Most of what folks know about refugees comes from news reports and headlines. But, as more families resettle in places like Lowell, there's more interest in actually getting to know refugees personally.

Cheryl Hamilton, the site director of the International Institute's Lowell office, says the organization is seeing an influx of people calling, wanting to get involved.

"There's a lot of rhetoric right now against immigrants so that's certainly drawing some interest," says Hamilton, "but also, I think that the families are here now and people are starting to connect with them, like our Syrian families, and they're hearing about them and they're telling other people and they're getting excited."

The arrival of Syrian refugees has been especially scrutinized since the country's civil war began five years ago.

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks last year, Gov. Charlie Baker said he no longer wanted to accept Syrians until he learned more about the vetting process. But now, Baker says he's satisfied with the screening after learning that most of the refugees coming here are women, children and families.

'Oct. 24, 2013. It's Unforgettable.'

Zainab, her father Khalil and mother Amina are three members of the Abdo family. The four youngest children are in school when we meet.

Zainab Abdo speaks with other students in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class at INNE in Lowell. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Zainab Abdo speaks with other students in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class at INNE in Lowell. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Abdos are among the more than 200 Syrian refugees who now call Massachusetts home.

The family fled Aleppo in 2013, after living for more than two weeks in the rubble of their bombed house, surviving on bread alone.

Khalil, through a translator, says he remembers the exact date they left their home, and began walking toward the Turkish border: "Oct. 24, 2013. It's unforgettable."

He says they walked for more than seven hours, mostly single file — trying to avoid bombs planted along the road. They took a bus to Istanbul where they stayed with family while they applied for refugee status.

After almost three years, Khalil says they learned they were coming to Massachusetts.

They were afraid of everything, he says. A new language, new culture, the transition. They were wondering, "What would life be like here?" But now, he says, they are very happy and grateful to be here.

Khalil and Amina Abdo say it took about three years from the time they applied for refugee status until they were settled in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Khalil and Amina Abdo say it took about three years from the time they applied for refugee status until they were settled in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Why The Influx Of Syrians Now Makes Sense

There were 68 Syrian refugees resettled here last year. That number is up to 155 this year.

Hamilton, of the International Institute, says timing is the biggest factor behind that increase.

"It takes, on average, two to four years to even get through the resettlement process, so, even if you'd applied to resettle in 2012, we wouldn't anticipate seeing you until 2014, 2015," Hamilton explains. "So obviously, those applications increased over the last four years, so that makes sense that now we're seeing the influx."

Hamilton also cites President Obama's increase in the national refugee quota as contributing to the recent wave.

Cheryl Hamilton encourages one of her clients to find something for herself. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Cheryl Hamilton encourages one of her clients to find something for herself. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Back at the clothing drive in the church basement, Khalil Abdo and his wife chat with a few of the Syrians who came to Massachusetts before them.

Abdo says he knows the winter here will be cold. But for now, he says the changing colors of the leaves and the cooler weather is very nice.

This segment aired on October 24, 2016.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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