Parishes, Catholic Charities help welcome migrant families

BRAINTREE -- "It could happen to me, too."

That was the first thing Father Edmund Ugwoegbu, pastor of St. Barbara Parish in Woburn, thought when 80 migrant families arrived in his community this August.

The families, mostly from Haiti but also from South and Central America, are part of a massive influx of migrants to Massachusetts in recent months. According to State House News Service, over 6,300 migrant families are currently living in shelters, including private hotels, across the state -- a 50 percent increase from last year. Their presence creates a dire need for food, warm clothing, shelter, education, transportation, and legal assistance. They are fleeing extreme poverty, violence, and political instability in their home countries. Father Ugwoegbu sees parallels between their struggles and those of migrants fleeing his native Nigeria.

"The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer," he said in an Oct. 3 interview. "People are hungry, and people want to run away from a toxic system."

Father Ugwoegbu is an administrator of the Woburn Migrant Family Outreach Ministry, which started in August as a collaboration with Pastor Bill Hoch of Woburn United Methodist Church. Shortly after the migrants' arrival, parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua Parish, part of the Woburn Catholic Collaborative with St. Barbara's, donated enough food to feed anywhere from 20 to 49 migrants for an entire month.

"We've had parishioners knock on the door to ask what they can do, how they can help," Operations and Ministry Manager Nicole Wilson said in an Oct. 3 interview. "We've had parishioners offer gift cards, we've had parishioners offer food."

Parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Boston have stepped up to welcome and assist migrants.

"These individuals arrive to a very new, very different, very strange place," Philip D'Agati, program manager of community sponsorship and engagement for Catholic Charities Boston, said in a Sept. 27 interview. "Our parishes... are doing what they can to make these individuals feel welcome and feel safe."

The Catholic Charities Inn in Brighton has opened its doors to migrant families and has provided them with food and clothing.

"It's a foundation of our faith that we provide food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless," D'Agati said.

St. Susanna Parish in Dedham is part of the Dedham Refugee Resettlement Collaborative, along with Catholic Charities Boston and several local churches: St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Allin Congregational Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and the Church of the Good Shepherd.

"It's not a Catholic obligation," Father Stephen Josoma, pastor of St. Susanna's, said in a Sept. 26 interview. "Taking care of each other. It's the Biblical mandate of hospitality. You take care of the stranger."

This summer, 150 migrants arrived in Dedham, 60 of them are new students enrolled in Dedham Public Schools. Parishioners of St. Susanna's have helped collect food and diapers for migrant families.

"They've been phenomenal," Father Josoma said of his parishioners. "Whenever we put a need out, we get it right away. People have been very generous."

Massachusetts's 40-year-old right to shelter law, the only one of its kind in the country, requires that migrant families be housed.

When that law was first implemented, Wilson said, "you didn't have busloads, and a thousand people coming into your state."

"This isn't going away, and it's not short-term," Father Ugwoegbu said. "We have to switch gears and think of what to do in the long run."

Due to the sheer number of recent arrivals, Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency on Aug. 8. This gave the state government access to more resources to support migrants, but their needs are still great.

"It's a crisis not because people are here," D'Agati said, "it's a crisis because the number of people is straining the system and resources that we have."

Father Josoma said that it has been easy for the Refugee Resettlement Collaborative to help migrants, because the town of Dedham has already been so welcoming to them.

In Woburn, the migrant ministry's greatest concern is that its volunteers will accidentally duplicate the efforts of another church or organization. St. Barbara's and St. Anthony's are planning to hold a warm clothing drive in preparation for the coming winter. The migrants, who came from tropical countries, have no warm clothing with them.

"It's bad enough to be thrusted into an environment where you don't know anything or anybody," volunteer Richard Orpen said in an Oct. 3 interview, "then all of a sudden to be buried up to your knees in snow . . . Your heart goes out to them. I figured I had to do something. You can't just sit back."

After the warm clothing drive, Father Ugwoegbu and his volunteers hope to help migrants find long-term housing, integrate with the Woburn community, and become self-sufficient. Father Ugwoegbu wants to have one-on-one conversations with the migrants, and, if they are Catholic, invite them to worship at St. Barbara's or St. Anthony's.

"No matter who you are," he said, "you are welcome. We all welcome you as a big community in Woburn."

Most of the migrants are Catholic, but pastoral assistant Michelle Parks said that faith makes no difference.

"We don't know if they're Catholic," she said in an Oct. 3 interview, "we don't know if they're Christian. We're just helping them."

That being said, D'Agati pointed out that the presence of the church can help Catholic migrants better adjust to their new surroundings.

"Many of them will find that having that attachment to a church community adds another layer of connection," he said.

The longer the migrants remain in Massachusetts, the more important long-term needs, such as creating a sense of community, will become. Catholic Charities Boston has been enrolling migrants into the Massachusetts Refugee Resettlement Program so they can remain in the U.S. and qualify for state benefits such as healthcare and food stamps.

In order to be granted asylum or be classified as refugees, migrants must go through what D'Agati called an "extraordinarily complex" and "extremely overpacked" immigration system.

"There's simply not the bandwidth to process all the individuals making those requests," D'Agati said, "resulting in significant delays."

The fate of the migrants in Dedham is currently unknown. They may stay in the U.S., be deported to their native countries, or go somewhere else entirely. Some of them could be recognized as refugees, if the government decides to classify them as such.

"I've never met anyone who wants to leave where they come from," Father Josoma said. "There's this idea that people come to America because they want the easy life. No one wants to leave their home."

Father Ugwoegbu said that the search for "the good life," in the form of equality and justice, is the greatest motivation for migrants.

"The United States promises a kind of good life, to some extent, to migrants," he said. "Massachusetts is welcoming migrants. It's a beautiful thing that these people are able to find a home. A home out of home."