LOWELL — On a Friday afternoon in August, Cheryl Hamilton hit “send” on a desperate plea for help. A crush of new refugees was arriving from Congo, Syria, Myanmar, and Iraq, a third of her nonprofit’s annual caseload in only three weeks. They needed everything: Winter coats, blankets, kitchen supplies, and rides to clinics and schools.
She hoped for a handful of donations and some volunteers to help resettle the refugees in New England.
Instead, she was flooded with piles of donations and a small army of helpers from Carlisle, Andover, Medford, Belmont, Needham, Chelmsford, and elsewhere — an outpouring she had never seen before. Over 100 people signed up to volunteer. Trucks filled with donations rolled up to the International Institute of New England’s offices in Lowell.
“Volunteers walked into the office and said, ‘I can’t stand watching the news anymore. How can I help?’ ” said Hamilton, who runs the Lowell office of the nonprofit, which resettles refugees for the federal government.
Hamilton said the unexpected groundswell of support actually had its start a year ago with a fund-raiser the institute called “Resettle Together.” The plan was to raise money for struggling refugee families, who receive limited government aid, but she soon discovered that potential benefactors wanted to do more. At first, donations arrived from Dover, N.H., Bedford, and Needham.
Fueled by social media posts and fliers distributed around communities, the number of volunteers has steadily risen since.Members of a mothers’ group in Andover donated comforters, blankets, and sheets. In Belmont, people filled over 160 large plastic bags with warm clothing, and the religious council pledged the proceeds of its Oct. 15 rummage sale to the institute.
When the institute ran out of space, a church and a local nonprofit offered to store the goods. And a group of military veterans stepped in to manage the donations.
Organizers say the support is partly in response to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric against immigrants.
“In an odd way we have Mr. Trump to thank for a lot of this, a lot of his hate and mongering for immigrants brought out many people who said, ‘I don’t believe in this. This isn’t America,’ ” said Sam James, a retired psychologist who helped start the effort in Belmont. “They responded. And the backlash has generated a lot of good.”
Organizers say one of the most surprising developments is the number of volunteers willing to ferry refugees to doctor’s appointments or to register their children for school. The Boston-based International Institute resettles over 600 refugees a year in New England, including 240 in Lowell.
Now, Arabic speakers volunteer as on-call interpreters for the newcomers. Others drive refugees to Walmart to shop for clothes. Some greet visitors at the institute’s reception desk in Lowell so staff members can handle other tasks.
Amanda Mujica, a 51-year-old costume designer from Belmont, had never volunteered with refugees before. But in recent weeks she has taken a mother from Myanmar to register her child at school, escorted a Congolese family to the hospital, and navigated the supermarket cereal aisle with a refugee from South Sudan.
“I’ve been wanting to do something. I’ve been looking at these headlines, and I can easily do this,” Mujica said. “A lot of people, they’ve seen all the imagery, they’ve been hearing the stories, they want to help. But it was such a big worldwide issue, people are like, ‘How can I [help]?’ If this is it, it’s great.”
Mohammad Alloh, a 39-year-old father of five children who fled the brutal conflict in Syria and lived in Jordan for four years before coming to the United States, grew emotional as he recalled the help he received from Aneela Qureshi-Rafiq, a 38-year-old member of a Facebook group for Andover moms that has donated to the effort. She brought the family soap and toothpaste but also meals and clothes.
“She brought us everything,” he said through an interpreter.
Qureshi-Rafiq, a lawyer, said she had been deeply troubled by the war in Syria. She said helping refugees here lifted her spirits, and theirs, too, since she is also Muslim, like many refugees, and the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant.
“You think that once they’re in the US they’ll be OK. And they are. But they have so many problems still,” she said. “You never realize that until you’re involved and you see what people are going through.”
Volunteers can offer refugees a sense of security, tips to find housing and jobs, and assistance with mundane tasks. Some refugees face more serious problems, such as eviction.
In the future, Hamilton said, the institute is planning group dinners to help people get to know one another better.
But some have already forged close bonds.
Moise Bita, a 51-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation struggling to recover from one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, arrived a few weeks ago with his pregnant wife and children. For 20 years he lived in a mud-hut refugee camp in Tanzania, with no running water or electricity.
After they finally got to America, his wife fell ill and collapsed.
Mujica, the volunteer from Belmont, took them to the hospital and stayed with them for eight hours.
Speaking at the International Institute’s Lowell office, Bita touched his chest as he searched for the words in Swahili to describe her effort.
“It really helped a lot,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
Mujica recalled that friends helped her father after he fled communist Cuba in 1959 and landed in Massachusetts with just a suitcase. He found housing. He found work. And then he had a family.
“I hope someone would do it for me,” she said.