Massachusetts churches have housed Afghan families for over a year as city unites in supporting new neighbors

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 11, 2023
Living quarters at St. Paul's

Space at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, was converted to bedrooms for two Afghan families who arrived in the city in December 2021 and January 2022. Photo: Jarred Mercer

[Episcopal News Service] Several churches in Newburyport, Massachusetts, have opened their doors since 2021 to welcome and house some of the more than 70,000 Afghans who fled to the United States from their home country after the Taliban took control there. At least five Afghan families now call Newburyport home, and three of those families have lived more than a year in makeshift housing created for them at two churches, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Though the goal has been to find more suitable permanent accommodations for those families, their temporary homes in the church facilities have lasted much longer than expected because of a shortage of housing options in and around Newburyport, a coastal community of about 18,000 near the New Hampshire state line. Housing large families has been a particularly difficult challenge.

At St. Paul’s, the congregation welcomed the first Afghan family in December 2021 – a mother and father and their seven children. A second pair of parents, with eight children, moved into the church the following month. Both of those families remain at St. Paul’s. “There was no [other] place for them, and there’s still no place for them,” the Rev. Jarred Mercer, rector of St. Paul’s, told Episcopal News Service.

A Congregational church briefly housed another family of four, who later moved into an apartment. A family of seven Afghans was able to find an apartment upon arriving in Newburyport. And First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist housed a family of 11, who are still living in the church’s parish hall.

Newburyport is not alone in these efforts. Communities and churches across the United States scrambled to welcome Afghan individuals and families after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Afghans who faced persecution for supporting the American war effort were granted emergency entrance to the United States through a federal program known as humanitarian parole.

In most communities, those Afghans took up residence in houses or apartments. The families that relocated to Newburyport were placed with the churches by International Institute of New England, a regional affiliate of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which is one of 10 agencies with federal contracts to facilitate refugee resettlement. Episcopal Migration Ministries also is one of the 10 agencies; it was not involved with welcoming the families in Newburyport.

International Institute of New England has assisted about 550 Afghans, finding housing quickly for most of them in New Bedford and Lowell, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire, according to a WBUR-FM report. Unlike the large families who arrived in Newburyport, most of the others were smaller families or single men.

“I think we do need maybe a state plan — some kind of housing plan for displaced people,” Anca Moraru, the agency’s chief program officer, told WBUR. “We are receiving so many people, and we can’t just struggle to find housing every day … So we need a separate funding pool.”

Now, the Newburyport churches have formed a coalition to serve all five Afghan families in their city, offering housing aid and a range of other support services, with additional assistance provided by the nonprofit New American Association of Massachusetts.

“The whole congregation has just completely rallied around it,” the Rev. Rebecca Bryan, the minister at First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist, told ENS. “It’s just been a remarkable experience.”

Bryan said her congregation previously heeded the Christian call to welcome the stranger when it voted before the pandemic to become a sanctuary congregation for undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation. When Afghan families began relocating to Newburyport and needed housing, the more than 450 voting members of the congregation agreed unanimously to offer church space at the church for temporary housing, Bryan said.

On the first floor of the parish hall, one large room now serves as a family living room, with adjoining kitchen facilities. Additional space upstairs was converted into five bedrooms, including by segmenting one large room using temporary walls.

At St. Paul’s, the congregation accommodated the two families by turning its downstairs classrooms and meeting rooms into living and sleeping spaces. Each family has three bedrooms. Upstairs, the parish’s kitchen is now shared by the two Afghan families, in addition to its continued use in the church’s meal program, which serves 300 meals a week to people in need in the Newburyport community.

The building originally had toilets and sinks but no bathing facilities. A local contractor and plumber donated their services and installed two showers at St. Paul’s, as well as two more showers at the Unitarian Universalist church for the family staying there.

The community donated other items, such as beds, bedding, sofas, clothing, kids’ toys, TVs – “everything you can think of that would be needed for living,” Mercer said. Most of those items had to be gathered in a short period in late 2021, when the churches were given only a few days’ warning that the first family was arriving.

“That was a really important initial moment of the whole city of Newburyport taking ownership and really being involved,” Mercer said. Since then, “there’s been deep friendships and bonds formed” between longtime residents and their new Afghan neighbors. They will continue to support the families when they eventually find housing outside of the churches, but “no one expected it to be this long.”

Bryan echoed those sentiments, saying the Afghan families have been welcomed warmly by members of the congregations and the wider community. “All of the Afghans who are here in the city have become a really important part of the community, and it really has been a positive thing, and is a positive thing for our church,” she said.

Afghan evacuees in Massachusetts

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, converted classroom and meeting space to temporary living quarters for Afghan evacuees who are being welcomed to the community. Photo: St. Paul’s, via Facebook

Although the families living at St. Paul’s and the Universalist Unitarian church still lack permanent housing, they have been settling into the community in other ways. The children began attending local schools and have been learning English in addition to their native Dari. They have participated on youth sports teams, from soccer to wrestling, Mercer said. Some of the older children have found jobs, as have the parents. The New American Association also has been helping some of the women develop their skills at hand-made crafts into a microbusiness, selling items at local fairs.

Newly arrived refugees have many short-term needs, but few are more important than housing. “How can you imagine people resettling, starting new lives, when everything has been taken away from them?” Mercer said. “And how can we expect them to begin a new life somewhere without housing?”

With housing for large families scarce, Mercer and other faith leaders have been talking with local officials about various options for the families who are living at the churches. That might entail purchasing existing homes for the families to use or building new accommodations. Other discussions have centered on the possibility of creating designated resettlement homes for other refugee families when they arrive in Newburyport.

“The argument I’ve been trying to make is we need particular solutions for particular situations,” Mercer said.

Throughout these developments, the churches have served as hubs of support, where volunteers offer the families daily English lessons and tutor the children in their schoolwork. Church volunteers also have provided the families with transportation around town while helping some members to get their own driver’s licenses.

Such efforts have brought the community together, with longtime residents offering to help in various ways, whether or not they are members of the churches housing the families.

“There are so many people who would never set foot in a church who are showing up and doing all kinds of things to help with this effort and ministering with us in beautiful ways,” Mercer said. “That has really been a remarkable aspect of this as well. It’s really drawn us closer together.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at