Like many people who live in this beautiful neighborhood, full of great old houses, I am over-housed. When mortgage rates come down and the right opportunity presents itself, I will downsize, In the meantime, answering Gov. Healey’s plea for help, I decided to open my home to recently arrived refugees.
I hosted my first family during Christmas week. They are mother, father, and two children, three and one year, from Haiti. After being connected with them through the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants, I worked through the Brazilian Worker Center (BWC) in Allston. BWC is one of the non-profits the state is working with to run family welcome centers. I had to undergo a background check, and the BWC told me they had performed one on the family that stayed with me.
They speak no English, and I speak no Haitian Creole, but I am lucky to have friends who do. We managed limited communication with their help, and by using Google Translate. The family, looking frightened and exhausted, seemed grateful. My understanding is that when people arrive here, they are shuttled among the family welcome centers, which only operate during the day, so some of them end up sleeping on the floor at the airport and in other places like the Cambridge Registry of Deeds site that has been in the news lately. These places are not fit to be shelters. By giving this family a place to stay for a few nights, I gave them a respite. They didn’t have to move every day between daytime and nighttime shelter, as they wait for a more permanent placement.
The family arrived here with no winter coats or other cold-weather gear. The mom was wearing sandals without socks, and the dad was wearing slippers. I have a friend who migrated here from a warm-weather climate, and she told me how exhausting she found the cold to be on her arrival. I can’t even imagine. So, I put out a call to a group of friends. We pooled our money and offered to take the family shopping for the things they would need to be at least a bit more comfortable as they try to navigate our slow-moving immigration system.
The father was reticent about taking help, saying through a translator that he felt bad about being in such need; he wanted to be able to provide for his family. We did our best to assuage his discomfort, and one friend and I took the mother to Target, where we bought coats, shoes, hats, gloves, hygiene products, and diapers. Because of the language barrier, it was difficult for us to make her understand that she should feel free to choose what her family needed. She seemed a bit frightened and very tentative. If you ask me, though, she was brave. Taking the kind of leap that she had to take to come here, and then trusting that the two strangers who took her shopping meant her no harm is its own form of courage. At one point, with the help of a friendly Target employee who spoke Haitian Creole, we figured out that the mother was just 25 years old – a kid – homeless and responsible for two little ones in a strange country where few spoke her language. Again, hard to imagine.
The friend who accompanied us to Target was born in Spain, and her mother was forced to flee to France after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. She told me that her mother was taken in by a grumpy old French woman who gave her ice cream.
People who come here from Haiti and other countries are fleeing unspeakable violence and poverty, and they are looking for work that will provide a better life for their families. They are, indeed, overwhelming our safety net at the moment, with the help of political grandstanding that uses them as pawns in some sort of a game, but despite that, we should do all that we can to welcome them. If you are in a position to help, you might consider stepping up. Maybe someday a child of one of these people will immortalize you in the way my friend has immortalized the grouchy old French lady.
At Target, we managed to get what everyone needed, and as we headed to the cash registers, my friend and I both noticed the mother looking at a bright pink sweater with big red hearts on it. She smiled. We grabbed one in her size, and somehow made her understand that we wanted her to have it. She demurred. We insisted. She beamed. When she left my house on Saturday, she was wearing it, and smiling as she gave me a big hug and said thank you. I wanted to ask if I could take a picture of her in the sweater, but I didn’t want to invade her privacy. So, I’ll just have to remember how happy she looked for that one fleeting moment. I know the rest of her day was likely hard to deal with.
They left after spending four nights in a comfortable bed with heat, a private bathroom, and plenty of food that they could cook for themselves. They left the rooms they used cleaner than they found them. In the days since, I have been thinking of them often, hoping that they are not sleeping on the floor at the airport, but they likely are. I wish I could have let them stay longer, but I couldn’t. But I can open my house again, and I can share this story so that my neighbors can consider what they might do if they have extra room in their homes in our amazing, welcoming neighborhood.
Editor's Note: The Reporter first published this article without a byline at the author's request. It was updated on Feb. 5 to include the author's name, art her request.