JUNE 15, 2017 – MARBLEHEAD – Early last year, Maria fled political violence in her Caribbean country, her infant in tow.
She flew to Miami and made her way up the East Coast, a journey that included a grueling stint in a tomato field that left burns on her skin from contact with pesticides. By October, she was in Malden, friendless, homeless, and too scared to return to her country. (Her name and some details have been changed to protect her identity; her family back home is still in danger.)
Meanwhile, motivated in part by the refugee crisis exploding in Europe and a crisis of fear at home, three Marblehead congregations – Temple Emanu-El, the Old North Church, and the Church of St. Andrew – began meeting last summer to discuss the possibility of sponsoring refugees.
Their first meeting fit easily around a small table in Temple Emanu-El’s library. By their third, two ministers and a rabbi were on board and the group had grown so large that it overflowed the temple’s fellowship room, with rows of extra chairs pulled in from the storage closet.
The group decided to contact the Refugee Immigration Ministry, a nonprofit based in Malden that helps those seeking asylum. At the same time, Maria had found the immigration group.
RIM asked the congregations: Will you help support her?
Although all they had in hand at the time was an outline of a budget, the answer was “yes.”
“We were seeking an opportunity to partner with other faith communities on a social action project,” said Richard Thibedeau of Marblehead, an Old North congregant. “We had sent contributions to organizations helping refugees and that, while important, seemed distant. This is more personal. We can see our efforts in action.”
Peggy and Dennis Curtain of St. Andrew took Maria and her child into their Swampscott home for a month while the group searched for a place for her to live. The group, which calls itself Welcome the Stranger, rapidly pulled together a team of volunteers and supporters.
Maria’s English as a Second Language program is run by Old North’s Linda Duvell of Marblehead. Temple Emanu-El’s Deborah Seiberg, a Swampscott social worker, is in charge of doctor’s appointments. Volunteers make trips to the grocery store and food pantries. Others make social visits.
These daily interactions have led to close friendships with Maria and her child, and among each other. “Being part of this caring community has allowed me to assist on a more personal level than I can as a clinician,” said Seiberg. “Finding new friends, working as a team with such caring people, has been a reward. Knowing [Maria] and her child has been a blessing.”
Maria now lives on the North Shore with her child. “It has been a personal challenge to feel her pain and not go for a Band-Aid … just to receive where she is and be there for her,” said Judy Beals, a member of the Church of St. Andrew who lives in Salem.
Salem immigration attorney Jeff Goldman took on Maria’s case pro bono. He said the system needs to be improved for those seeking a new life in America.
“The asylum system in the United States is failing in its mission to provide safety and peace to persecuted people as a result of absurd backlogs,” said Goldman.
Maria’s case may take as long as three years to hear. She’s received the necessary papers and is looking for work.
The group has spent $13,500 so far supporting her, the bulk on housing. Going forward, they expect their financial contribution to decrease as Maria gains full-time employment. The congregations are halfway through their 18-month commitment to her family.
Marcy Bernstein of Marblehead and Temple Emanu-El discussed what the past nine months have meant to the group.
“On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi [David] Meyer told the story of an old man picking up dying starfish off the sand,” she said. “One by one he threw them back into the water so that they could live. When questioned, ‘Why do you bother? They are so many, what difference does it make?’ The old man responded by flinging another starfish into the sea. ‘It makes a difference to that one,’ he said.”
Bernstein then paused before resuming her thoughts about Maria. “This family? They’re our starfish.”
Donations are welcome and can be made to Temple Emanu-El, 393 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead.