Melissa Marrama’s initial efforts to assist Afghan refugees started modestly. Last summer and fall, the Andover financial planner rallied members of area mosques to collect household items for Afghani families newly housed in Lowell-area hotels. Now, thanks to grants from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation’s Afghan Resettlement Fund, Marrama has developed a network of individuals, businesses and religious organizations throughout the Merrimack Valley focused on helping more than 400
local Afghan refugees adjust to life in the United States.
Working through the Andover Islamic Center, Marrama assists refugee families and individuals living in Greater Lowell locate permanent housing, enroll in schools, line up transportation, learn English, and find jobs.“Our generous donors who gave to the GLCF Afghan Resettlement Fund provided area nonprofits with the critical support needed to help welcome and resettle our new Afghan neighbors,” said Jay Linnehan, GLCF’s President and CEO. “This grant funding complemented the work of local nonprofits and expanded our community’s capacity to meet the needs of Afghans who fled their homeland to come to the U.S. seeking safety.”“I’m not a resettlement agency,” stressed Marrama. “I’m trying to build support systems for these Afghan families. My thing is, when I help them, I help them as a group.”
For 25 years, Marrama had done charity work by writing checks. “But during the COVID-19 pandemic, I started volunteering and encouraged others to volunteer,” she said.
In August 2021, Marrama got a call from Patricia Coffey, Director of Community Relations at UMass Lowell, asking if she could help collect household items for newly arriving Afghan refugees. “So, I put out calls for help to my own mosque and other mosques,” she explained. “I thought we’d just do it quietly.”
But a story about their efforts ran in a local newspaper and Marrama’s phone started ringing. “We got calls from Jewish temples, Christian churches, local businesses, and community organizations – they all wanted to help. I would post on Facebook that we needed 50 microwaves or 50 sets of sheets, and the items would just come in.”
At first, Marrama brought everything she collected to resettlement agencies for distribution. But once the refugees arrived in Lowell, she began making home visits and asking them directly what they needed. “I got very close to these families,” she said. “Now, I’m in close contact with 90 percent of them.”
The local refugees fall roughly into two distinct group, she explained. The first group consists of single men who worked with the U.S. military. The second group is made up of large families -- married men who came over with wives and often six to eight children.
“Some of these men were military pilots, trained by U.S troops,” said Marrama. Others were military maintenance workers, journalists, or medical workers, she added. They come from all over Afghanistan, from many different walks of life. And the vast majority don’t speak English.
With the GLCF grant funds, Marrama helps the refugees work toward achieving three key milestones: learning English, earning a driver’s license, and finding a job.“The biggest challenge is learning English. To get a driver’s license, you must be able to read road signs” she said. “I have airplane pilots who have never driven a car before!”Marrama has helped many Afghans enroll in driving schools. Once they earn their licenses, they can better travel to and from work – and drive other refugees on the weekends. “I tell all the drivers we have assisted, ‘I will help you, but you need to help others by joining our network.’”
Through her local connections, Marrama has also generated a variety of other goods and services. “We work with companies like Timberland, which just gave us 86 pairs of boots for our men working in factories,” she said. The Bike Connector, a Lowell nonprofit, has donated free bikes -- often the first means of transportation for these refugees, Marrama explained. “And a number of local businesses have reached out to us with job offers,” she said. “Recently Vicor Corp. hired 25 Afghans to make chips for electric vehicles. Plus, we were able to provide technology to help Afghani pilots training to be pilots here in the U.S.,” Marrama said. And Staples and Leap Year Publishing have donated school supplies for the kids.
However, Marrama realized the youngest refugees needed special attention. “These kids have no sense of normalcy,” she said. “They have been uprooted from their country, lived for months in refugee camps around the U.S., then moved here. They’ve lost their sense of play and how to have fun.”
So, she connected with Leah Okimoto, founder of the Lowell-based nonprofit Aaron’s Presents, who helped arrange playdates with the refugee children.
“Aaron’s Presents works with local students in grades 4-8 to give them
the opportunity to do whatever they want to do -- as long as it benefits somebody else,” explained Okimoto. Last winter and spring, middle-school volunteers from Lowell Community Charter Public School elected to arrange fun activities with the Afghan children, to make them feel welcome, she said.
“We were simply trying to bring an afternoon of joy and fun to these kids,” Okimoto said. “We did about 20 projects this past school year, mostly playdates with our middle-schoolers and the Afghan kids. And we’ll continue arranging them this fall.
“Because of the language barrier, we couldn’t have done it without Melissa,” added Okimoto. “She knows many of these families and made the initial introductions.” And both groups of children benefited.
“It has been so amazing to see how just playing
transcends language,” she said. “At the beginning of these playdates, the kids might gather in a circle and pass a ball around in a park. Within minutes, they just start playing together.
“It’s really impactful for our middle-schoolers,” said Okimoto. “They are learning that ‘Yes, these children are from a different country, but they’re just like us. All they want to do is play and be happy and make friends.’ Kids just instantly get that through in-person experiences like this.”
To learn more about GLCF’s Afghan Resettlement Fund, visit: glcfoundation.org