NEWBURYPORT – As of next Monday, an Afghan family of 13 will call St. Paul’s Episcopal Church home – at least temporarily.
St. Paul’s rector, the Rev. Dr. Jarred Mercer, said the parents and 11 children, ranging in age from an infant to 17, are the first evacuees from Afghanistan coming to Newburyport under Operation Allies Welcome. A second family (with 11 members) is expected to follow shortly, Mercer said. Both families will live in converted space at St. Paul’s while the church and its partner, the International Institute of New England (iine.org), work to find permanent housing.
The families are among the thousands evacuated when the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan in August. Since then, they have been living on American military bases where they have been given English lessons, health exams, COVID-19 vaccinations and some orientation to American culture.
Opening up the church, Mercer said, is both a privilege and a moral imperative. “It is a privilege to offer support for these families in such a crucial way,” he said. “The call to do all we can to love and support these friends, whose lives have been put in grave danger in their home country because of their relationship to ours, is a moral imperative of our time.”
Mercer said church members have been scrambling to convert classroom and meeting space into living quarters since they received word the first family would be arriving Dec. 6. They have put locks on doors for security and privacy, and eventually plan to install a shower. The church already has bathrooms, and a washer and dryer are available in contiguous space used by Community Service of Newburyport.
St. Paul’s, he said, welcomed this opportunity for the Newburyport community “to come together for the good of our new neighbors, and to give back to those in great need during this major humanitarian crisis.”
And it is a community endeavor. According to Mercer, the most immediate needs are mattresses, beds, linens, towels, and toiletries. For the first family, the church is looking for donations of a queen or double bed, 10 twin beds, and a crib.
When the evacuation from Afghanistan started, Mercer said he contacted the International Institute of New England and offered to help. “I let them know about the space we had and that it would be available. It was obviously the right thing to do,” he said Wednesday.
Mercer said the two families are arriving in such a short time frame that it’s possible, even likely, both families – 24 people – could be living in the church space at the same time. “The alternative here would be for large families to stay in six or seven hotel rooms for months. This is a much better scenario for them,” he said. “It feels more like home than a hotel would.”
Mercer said he wasn’t sure about family members’ English proficiency, beyond what they might have learned on military bases in recent months. He anticipates some of children will be enrolled in Newburyport schools.
So far, the International Institute has resettled more than 300 people from Afghanistan in Massachusetts since 2014, mostly in Greater Lowell. Plans call for resettling 125 more in a matter of weeks.
“That’s a massive influx all at once,” Mercer said. “Finding housing for anyone isn’t simple. Finding a home big enough for families like this is just that much more.” He predicted it could take several months to find them permanent housing.
He said the community can contribute through donations of household items, winter clothing, or money for building accommodations and furnishings, utility expenses, groceries and other supplies.
Mercer said people can call the church at 978-465-5351, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for drop-offs. Clothing donations can be dropped off at the church from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contributions can be made at http://stpaulsnewburyport.org/give, (note that the gift is for Afghan evacuee housing) or by check to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 166 High St., Newburyport, MA 01950 (with a note in the memo line). All gifts are tax deductible.
“This is a time for our whole community to come together, and in this season of giving and generosity, to do all we can to support these arrivals who are in such great need,” Mercer said.