Sign-holders Sonia and Elsie Coleman at First Parish vigil Feb. 1. / Marjorie Howard photoSign-holders Sonia and Elsie Coleman at a 2017 First Parish vigil supporting immigrants. / Marjorie Howard photo

UPDATED Feb. 14: In the past four months, Massachusetts has reached a critical point in the refugee crisis. Recent state regulations have displaced several families. Now, many seeking safety face homelessness and uncertainty. 

In October 2023, Gov. Maura Healey announced that the commonwealth did not have enough shelter, services or funding to support more than 7,500 refugees — but, just one month later, that limit was reached. Hundreds were placed on a “waitlist,” waiting for basic necessities such as a roof over their heads and food on their plate. In 2024, government officials and others are trying to address this gap, and each community has its own role to play. 

The local community generally recognizes that newcomers to America, regardless of their precise circumstances, have come here for a new and better life -- and has groups and individuals dedicated to providing support. 

Most recently, two of the town’s commissions teamed up to host A Day of Learning, an educational event focused on "building welcoming communities" for refugees. The event took place at Arlington High School from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10; it was free and open to the public. More information about it appears at the end of this article.

Day of LearningOver the past few weeks, YourArlington has reached out to seek data about the refugees residing in town. Refugees are in Arlington, and many people are concerned about them-- so concerned that basic details surrounding demographics have not been shared with YourArlington.

It's a stance that is not entirely unwarranted. People from other countries are often the target of hate crimes, which, according to recent statistics, have increased in recent years

“There is a fear that refugees take jobs, yet often they do the very jobs Americans are not interested in doing,” wrote Arlington resident Jean Sicurella, co-founder of the nonprofit Misión de Caridad.

 “A big concern we hear is about the cost of refugees, but that is largely due to our broken system. If we allowed refugees to work upon entry, many would gladly pay their own way,” Sicurella wrote. 

"Nobody wants to be without the opportunity to work. We need a better way to process refugees with a fair and just system.”

Locally founded: Misión de Caridad

Misión de Caridad is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization, founded in Arlington, which works to break the cycle of poverty for displaced women and children on the Mexico side of the border. 

“Families continue to live in extreme poverty at the border, and children are not being educated, so there is little hope for the next generation,” Sicurella wrote in a recent email. “Over 50 percent of children never make it past sixth grade, and many more can’t read and write.” 

Misión de Caridad focuses on the foundations that support children for an optimal learning environment, including promoting economic stability, health and nutrition, and facilitating a supportive network for families. Sicurella travels to Mexico about once a month, where she spends time at the nonprofit’s facility, Casa Esperanza. “[It’s] like an oasis in the desert where women and children find hope,” she wrote.

At the facility, Misión de Caridad provides a multitude of services, including job training programs, education for both children and adults, daily meals and medical care. 

Mision de Caridad model/  courtesy Jean Sicurella

“Seeing lives transformed and knowing that it’s impacting families for generations to come . . . It is watching families have hope that life will be better. I am blessed. The work I do is hard, but it is worth every sacrifice,” Sicurella wrote.

Misión de Caridad does not currently serve refugees in Arlington, but Sicurella hopes to raise awareness about the impact residents can make, despite being thousands of miles away from the border. Sicurella said that some Arlington residents contribute to her organization — she brings along two suitcases packed with donated items each month she visits Casa Esperanza. 

“I can’t speak to how Arlington is treating refugees, but I can say that those that are displaced have found themselves in Arlington and have had a long journey ahead. They are strangers in an unknown land, and they need to be welcomed,” Sicurella wrote.

About newcomers in Arlington

According to Jeffrey Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England (IINE), 16 immigrant families, primarily from Haiti and other New World countries, are being supported in Arlington. In an email to YA, Thieman wrote that these families have been lawfully admitted into the country and that the IINE staff helps them find apartments, healthcare and food access. 

“Our goal is to support their integration into communities in Massachusetts, including supporting their efforts to find employment,” Thielman wrote. 

It is important to note the distinction between an immigrant and a refugee. The latter is an individual seeking refuge in a new country from war, persecution or political turbulence. The former is an individual looking for jobs and/or education, or someone who simply wants to permanently live in another country, according to the International Rescue Committee

While the immigrant families being served in IINE shelters did not arrive to the U.S. as refugees, IINE Marketing Director Danielle Gauthier noted that some of the Haitian immigrants “are fleeing their homes in Haiti to escape political instability, gang violence, famine and persecution.”

The Lost Boys project

Longtime residents may recall Arlington’s participating in the "Lost Boys" project, whereby 3,300 young refugees from southern Sudan were brought to the U.S. throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Roughly 20,000 children between the ages of 7 to 17 were left displaced from their families during Sudan’s ongoing civil wars, experts say. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the refugees settled in 18 states. Massachusetts received the second highest initial amount, with 65 Lost Boys.

Since then, the new nation of South Sudan was created from what had been southern Sudan.

The South Sudanese Enrichment for Families nonprofit came into being in 2004 and became a point of welcome for the refugees. According to its website, around 150 Sudanese refugees in total ultimately came to settle in the greater Boston area.

According to SSEF Executive Director Susan Winship, the group's community center once stood at 61 Mass. Ave. in East Arlington. Winship wrote to YA that it was a wonderful place but, ultimately, too expensive to maintain. “We closed the center because we wanted to spend more money on programs and not space,” Winship wrote. SSEF is now based out of her home in Lincoln.

Many South Sudanese refugees have been residing in town and receiving support through the SSEF services. According to Winship, some now have families and are looking to buy homes but, due to the high cost of housing in Arlington, Winship wrote that some are looking for affordable housing elsewhere.“The [South] Sudanese are a wonderful group of people. It is a pleasure helping them settle and make a life here,” she wrote. 

Watch a video about South Sudanese refugees, featuring Feb. 10th's keynote speaker:

Sheltering efforts in Boston, elsewhere

Recent state efforts to mitigate the crisis have been transforming large public buildings into temporary shelter sites. At the beginning of February, a recreational complex in Roxbury opened its doors to 75 individuals seeking shelter; officials say that the site can host up to 400 people.

In December, the Globe reported that some state officials have opted to move migrants from shelter sites into hotels fully dedicated for emergency sheltering purposes. According to the article, this decision was met with criticism by many, claiming the move would be chaotic and dangerous for families. 

Arlington Public Schools

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Homan was quoted in the Globe in December, speaking on the unpredictability the school district faces with some of its migrant students moving in and out of town.

The Globe reported that APS staff had been working to inform the affected families that a federal law allows homeless students to remain enrolled in a school despite being relocated to a different town.

Arlington Public Schools has not yet responded to YourArlington’s request for comment.

ArCS Cluster

ArCS Cluster is an organization made up of local volunteers who help provide housing, food and additional support and resources for refugees, albeit on a small scale. According to founder Eric Segal, who formed the group in 2016, ArCS cluster generally supports three to five households at a time.

“We have to keep the numbers small because we depend on donated housing, which, as you can imagine, is hard to find,” Segal wrote in an email to YourArlington.

Arlington EATS

The staff of Arlington EATS is aware that many of those receiving their services are refugees. The group helps provide low-income people of all backgrounds with free, high-quality food, both shelf-stable and fresh, that is donated by regular grocery stores to the EATS Market on Broadway.

Executive Director Andi Doane told YourArlington that although the nonprofit does not keep any record of how many of their guests are refugees, Arlington EATS does know that 17 different languages are spoken amongst them. The group prioritizes making its service as accessible for each one of them.

“Last summer, we purchased a translation device that allows our staff and volunteers to communicate in 76 different languages,” Doane wrote.

Doane noted that when refugees were being resettled in Arlington from Afghanistan and Ukraine, volunteers and members worked to ensure they were providing culturally appropriate foods, as well as hanging up signage in their guests’ native languages. 

Although not all of the recent growth in usage can be attributed to international newcomers, Doane said that the organization has seen a 35 percent growth in the past year in the number of families served. 

Free seminar took place Feb. 10, 2024

Saturday morning’s event at Arlington High School featured keynote speaker Sasha Chanoff, CEO and founder of the organization RefugePoint, which dedicates its services to support refugees worldwide. SashaSasha Chanoff, speaker at 11 a.m Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, at AHS/ photo courtesy RefugePoint

According to Andrew Doucette, senior account executive with Matter Communications (which represents RefugePoint), Chanoff resided in Arlington at St. Paul Lutheran Church during the 1990s, and therefore his connection to the town “runs deep.” In an email to YA, Doucette wrote that Chanoff lived in the church rectory for several years before working as a cultural orientation instructor and supervisor for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration in Kenya.

“Sasha created lasting relationships with many of the church members during his time there,” Doucette wrote.

According to Doucette, Chanoff helped bring some refugees into Arlington for the Lost Boys project, including four siblings who were taken in by the church’s pastor. “Many of the church members and members of the Arlington community helped support the creation of the South Sudanese Enrichment for Families and were among the first donors to support RefugePoint,” Doucette wrote. 

Organizers of Saturday’s event  intended it to encourage residents to think about the way the town approaches refugees. 

This article, including its layout, was created by Brynn O'Connor, YourArlington assistant to the editor and was published Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. It was updated Feb. 10, 2024, for addition of a photograph, for wordsmithing for clarity, and for time references. It was updated again, Feb. 11, to correct Andrew Doucette's job title. It was most recently updated Feb. 15 to include a relating link.