Massachusetts Woman Welcomes and Supports Afghan Refugees

Daily Point of Light # 7771 Mar 19, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Terry Symula. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

When a small town welcomes refugees with open arms, Terry Symula is one of the first to step up to support them. She works as a self-described case manager, networking to clear hurdles and gather whatever these families need. She uses her creative problem-solving skills to troubleshoot when issues arise. She’s a steadfast presence in the lives of the people she works with as they rebuild their lives, so much so that some even call her “grandmother.”

Terry shares her journey into volunteering and the inspiring work she’s done to build a better community, starting in her own backyard.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Ascentria Care Alliance and WelcomeNST.

Ascentria, in partnership with WelcomeNST is the resettlement agency that helped these and other Afghan refugees for three months. We call our local chapter Team Harvard. I basically work as a case manager for each of the Afghan refugee families our community has taken in. In the beginning, it was essentially full time. Today, our families are making huge progress towards independence. I still spend about 20 hours a week supporting them in various ways. I make connections. I network. I help people shop. I make sure that everything is running well. The families are always on my mind, but it’s no longer a 24/7 endeavor because our families have established lives here. My goal is to welcome them, make sure they’re safe, give them resources, and have them become independent of us.

I do whatever is needed. This can include helping the men find jobs, organizing clothing and household goods donations from the community, driving kids and their moms to doctor appointments, helping find housing, finding health insurance, getting food assistance, and finding tutors for the children and English classes for the parents. I also advocate for the families. For example, one of our families was at risk of losing their housing because the property owner wanted to sell the property so it could be developed for commercial use. I and others advocated for the family. We convinced the property owners not to sell the property.

I’ve never been alone in this. So many people in the community have come together to help. We have huge community support. Team Harvard alone has about 40 dedicated volunteers.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

In September of 2021, my husband and I attended a fundraising dinner to support a refugee Afghan family in another town. I was surprised that a third of the attendees were from our town of Harvard. The speaker, Elizabeth Davis Edwards of, really inspired me. She talked about what it’s like for the refugees who come to the United States. Let me tell you, it’s hard. They don’t know where they’re going, and they get resettled by agencies, which only pay to support them for three months. These families have no jobs, no permanent homes, no social circle and no understanding of cultural differences. Many of them don’t speak any English, either. We knew that our town had what it took to welcome a refugee family too. There’s a lot of uncertainty and we want to make them feel welcome.

I agreed to take the lead and we created Team Harvard and with community support. We raised funds, got some logistics in place and agreed to host a young Afghan couple that was expecting a baby.

In 2022, our church stepped in to help house two large Afghan refugee families while we pursued housing options. I helped organize the renovation of a municipal building into a home, and it kind of took on a life of its own after that. We collaborated with other churches in our town. This is their concern, too. By January we had welcomed 35 Afghan refugees including the two large families. I petitioned the town to set aside an empty town building, the Bromfield House, as a home for these refugees. The community rallied and we were able to renovate the Bromfield House by August.

Throughout 2022 our team helped five families and during this time, two beautiful baby girls were born, both named Khadijah, which means the prophet’s wife.

What are your long-term plans or goals for staying involved?

I will stay involved as long as I can. I’m always looking to help. I hope to help improve things from a logistics perspective. Whenever I have an opportunity to share what I’ve learned, I share it. For example, I’ve learned how to find government benefits for the refugees. Help and resources are available but not always easy to get. There’s a tremendous amount of paperwork that needs to be organized. I would love to re-engineer the process to make it more efficient, not just for refugees but any organizations that help people. I would love to be part of that discussion.

Terry, Team Harvard volunteer, speaks in Boston at the first anniversary of the Welcome Corps. /Courtesy Terry Symula

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I love seeing the kids blossom. I love seeing how many people have come out to help. I’ve found that people are waiting to be asked. They’re waiting for something to do, and this is an opportunity to help. I’m so proud of my community. My church took the lead on this, but it’s every church, it’s non-church, it’s elected officials, it’s the school system, it’s everyday people that make it happen. Everyone has put out the welcome mat.

Getting past the cultural differences has been a challenge at times, but now the families call me “grandmother.” We have become close friends.

When the families first arrived, the children and the mothers did not speak a single word of English. Now, the kids are nearly fluent, and the mothers are making amazing strides too. The fathers all have full time jobs, driver’s licenses and cars. Even the eldest girls have jobs and driver’s permits. What’s most rewarding is the mothers, who had no education, are learning to read for the first time alongside their preschoolers. They can navigate the grocery store and use their phones. A whole world has opened up to them.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I can do more than I thought I could do. Little things make a big difference. You meet the nicest people when you volunteer. I’m glad I have the time. It’s a great way to spend time when you do have it.

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.

I have had a number of speaking opportunities where I share what we do, and whenever there’s a speaking opportunity, I’ll take it. One of the refugee teens who is graduating this year is putting together a photo exhibition profiling the many people who have helped welcome her and her family into the community. I’m very excited to see it.

The Shams and Niazy families on the steps of their new home.

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

If you care about something, you need to get involved. It’s the only way anything happens. If you see something you can do, just do it.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

The opportunities depend on your community. If your community has a food pantry, that’s a great place to start. In my town, various organizations are always looking for volunteers. Once you’re “in,” you can network and find other opportunities. Volunteer organizations usually run pretty lean. There’s always a need for people and always something to do.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

If you lead, people will follow. People are afraid to lead, but ultimately, you don’t lead alone; people always show up to help you lead. I love the quote by Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love” Time, treasure and talent—that’s what’s needed.

I’ve also learned that we all have something in common if we talk long enough.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Terry? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Jarmila Gorman