MARLBOROUGH – With refugee families arriving in this country by the hundreds, one organization is quietly helping them find a home in the United States.
One family at a time.
Welcome Neighborhood Support Team (NST) is a program based in Marlborough that started in 2021 to help families fleeing from Afghanistan.
As American troops withdrew and the Taliban took over, families who aided the Americans found themselves in danger of arrest or worse.
When these refugees began arriving in the United States, there was little to no infrastructure to help them, according to Welcome NST founder Elizabeth Davis-Edwards.
“Under the previous administration, the U.S. had not been welcoming to immigrants, so there was no infrastructure to welcome up to 8,000 refugees,” she said. “They literally just didn’t have the people” to process the new arrivals.
“Most people want to help refugees, but don’t know where to start or what to do,” said Davis-Edwards. “Through Neighborhood Support Teams, we’re not just helping families, we’re transforming lives and building bridges between neighbors.”
RELATED CONTENT: Shrewsbury team prepares to welcome Sudanese family
With help from the State Department and regional organizations such as Ascentria Care Alliance in Worcester, the teams began to form soon afterward.
These teams comprise 20-30 volunteers – neighbors, fitness clubs, social media groups. They provide long-term assistance to newly-arrived families, including housing, clothing and job assistance. Each NST raises $20,000 to $25,000 on average to help refugees toward self-sufficiency.
There are currently 3,000 volunteers in the Welcome NST program across 28 states; they have helped resettle more than 600 refugees.
“You boil that down to one family, then it becomes manageable,” said Davis-Edwards.
A family from Afghanistan
In 2021, NSTs welcomed 400 men, women and children from Afghanistan, most of them coming to Massachusetts.
“It was intense. I was bowled over with all these people who wanted to help,” said Davis-Edwards.
A local NST welcomed a husband, wife and two (soon-to-be three) children from the rural part of the country. The husband had worked with the U.S. military during the occupation. When the troops were withdrawn, and the Taliban took over, “He had a target on his back,” said Mike*, a member of the local Welcome NST group.
Thanks to Ascentria Care Services, the family managed to leave Afghanistan; thanks to Welcome NST, the family was able to find a home in the United States.
RELATED CONTENT: Afghan refugees reflect on their life after coming to Northborough
The local NST would spend the next 10 months helping this family sign up for programs, obtain driver’s licenses, provide rides to and from appointments and get used to American culture.
“There’s quite a bit of success,” said Mike.
The husband now works as a long-haul truck driver; his wife – who was not allowed to drive under Taliban law – now has a driver’s license.
“She’s more comfortable on her own,” said the NST member.
The family has been sending money to relatives back in Afghanistan. According to the NST member, the relatives are starving.
Soon after the Afghan family were resettled, the local NST group welcomed another family, this time from Ukraine.
A family from the Ukraine
Vanessa* remembers the morning the bombs fell.
She and her family lived by the Black Sea in Odessa, a major seaport in the Ukraine.
Just before dawn on Feb. 24, 2022, her family woke up to the noise of loud explosions.
“We thought the ships had blown up,” she said.
They turned on the TV and learned that Russia had begun an invasion of Ukraine.
Vanessa and her family – including two children – left Odessa that same day. After three days of traveling through Moldova, Hungary and Romania, they found refuge in a house in Poland.
The family stayed inside for the next two months, trying to adjust to their new surroundings.
“The kids didn’t understand what they needed to do,” said Vanessa.
Over the coming months, Vanessa kept in touch with Mike. In September, the family received visas; Vanessa and her children left for the United States, while her husband remained in Poland. Her parents are still in the Ukraine.
“They’re afraid every day,” she said. “We keep in touch every day.”
Vanessa said her children have adjusted to their new surroundings very well.
“The schools have been very welcoming,” she said.
Those wishing to donate to help the local Welcome NST resettle families from the Ukraine may go to https://www.classy.org/campaign/team-odessa/c517074.
How to help
In addition to the families currently in the program, Welcome NST has been helping with refugees from Haiti; some are being housed in two hotels in Marlborough while others were welcomed by a church in Boston.
“You get to know all these people; it’s really a powerful experience,” said Davis-Edwards. “You watch their resiliency to help provide a future for their children.”
The experience has been transforming for the NSTs as well.
“It gets the community to come out of their space,” she said.
Welcome NST can use more people to form teams and help welcome refugee families.
Those interested in joining or forming an NST may visit https://www.welcomenst.org.
New NSTs will be assigned a mentor, said Davis-Edwards: “We will walk with you every step of the way.”
Donations to Welcome NST are also welcome. Visit the website for details.
Editor’s Note: To safeguard privacy, the names of the families involved with the Welcome NST program have been changed or not used.