One Woman and 400 Afghan Refugees

Afghans repatriated to U.S. face the pains of a poorly managed resettlement program

Two chukchi girls in folk dress against the Arctic landscape

By  Laura El Alam

May/June 2022

Melissa Marrama’s phone does not stop pinging. In the one hour that she sat with me to answer questions for this article, she received over 25 messages. Most of the texts were pleas for help, but some came from people who wanted to offer services or donations. Many were from complete strangers who knew only of her reputation as a trustworthy local philanthropist. 

As a wife, mother, full-time financial planner, landlady, community activist and cofounder of the Andover Islamic Center, Melissa wears too many hats to enumerate. It seems impossible that one woman can accomplish so much, especially since Melissa’s most outstanding trait — after her generosity — is her humbleness. She avoids the spotlight and is always focused on quietly serving others. That is why people from all walks of life in New England trust this unassuming, gentle and hardworking convert.

New Afghan Friends

Currently, most of Melissa’s considerable energy is focused on the 400+ Afghan refugees resettled in the Merrimack Valley, a region that includes parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Several months ago, a professor at the University of Massachusetts approached Melissa and asked her to help collect donations for incoming refugees. To say that the scope of Melissa’s work has broadened since then is a huge understatement. 

Melissa Marrama

These days she is deeply enmeshed in the day-to-day lives of many of “her new Afghan friends,” as she tends to call them. She drives them to and from English classes, finds translators for them and lets them use her name as an emergency contact on their children’s school forms. In addition, she coordinates meals, collects household goods and donations, fills out paperwork and tries to find jobs for them. She is, literally, a lifesaver. 

Why is one woman, who already has a full-time job and a family of her own, taking on so much responsibility for a large group of refugees? “Because,” Melissa says, “the system is failing them and someone has to do it.”

The U.S. government, which allowed the refugees to enter the country, has entrusted their fate to privately owned resettlement agencies, most of which, Melissa relates, are terribly inefficient and unprepared to offer even the basic support that the families need. For instance, a few local resettlement agencies were tasked with providing housing for the Afghans in the Merrimack Valley. Instead of providing safe accommodations, they placed several refugees in a sober house, a place designated for recovering drug or alcohol abusers, some of them just out of prison. One young refugee was assaulted there. 

Other refugee families are living in substandard housing with unreliable heat. Although they are entitled to government aid, they cannot access it without transportation. Like everyone else these days, refugees depend on technology for job applications, school and medical forms and crucial documentation. However, many still don’t have internet access (even though they are entitled to get it for free, along with food stamps) because they have no way to get to the relevant office to set it up. Their caseworkers are, for the most part, inefficient and unempathetic. “Most caseworkers don’t even know how to navigate the system themselves, much less help others,” says Melissa.

Without a strong command of English or the resources to advocate for themselves, these Afghans are often stuck in a vicious cycle of dependence and helplessness. Melissa steps in to try to help them. Effectively, she is one woman trying to carry a load of 400 people. 

Interfaith Cooperation 

But Melissa is not entirely alone. In a beautiful example of interfaith cooperation, the local Jewish, Catholic and Hindu communities have collected a great deal of money and household goods to aid the refugees. “Jewish children made blankets and care packages, and the Indian Chinmaya Mission community collected laptops and clothing,” says Melissa. “The Jewish community and Catholic Charities have been exceptionally generous,” she adds. 

I asked Melissa if the local Muslim community was helping. “A handful of people and a few local mosques are helping,” she says. “Not as many as you would expect, though. Honestly, it’s been the Christian and Jewish communities that have donated the most. We wish there was more Muslim support.”

A secular, nonprofit organization in Lowell (Mass.) called “The Bike Connector” has agreed to teach some of the refugees how to repair old bicycles. Once they have fixed them, the refugees get to keep the bicycles. The organization donates the helmets, locks and other necessities. This provides the much-needed transportation for men who need to get to work but have no car. 

A few local foundations have, unasked, offered sizable grants. Thanks to one, 110 refugee families now have computers. Other companies have donated tablets and English language apps. A local thrift store has opened its doors and allowed the Afghans to try on clothing and take whatever they need. 

One woman in Andover donated a used car worth $14,000 to be given to the refugee who needs it the most. Melissa says it is “one of the hardest decisions of her life” to decide which refugee family will get the car, since so many desperately need transportation. One vehicle — though very generous — is not nearly enough for 400 people. 

The Best and the Worst

The refugees’ plight has mostly brought out the best in people, but sometimes the worst, Melissa observes. One local businessman who owns a large conglomerate of hotels and restaurants tried to take advantage of the refugees’ desperation by offering them jobs paying less than minimum wage. Melissa, who was there to intercede on their behalf, reminded the shady businessman of the legal repercussions of violating the mandated wage laws. 

On the other hand, a local Greek immigrant who owns a chain of Dunkin Donuts stores sympathized with the challenges of settling down in a new country. He has kindly offered jobs to several of the Afghan arrivals at fair wages. 

A U.S. servicewoman in New Hampshire reached out to Melissa, offering her assistance, because “We [the U.S. military] never should have been in Afghanistan, but we were. Now we need to help them and make things right.”

Long-term Planning 

As exhausting as the process can be, some success stories buoy Melissa’s spirits. “There are 14 refugees who have been here for two-and-a-half months,” she says. “All, except one, are now employed. All have food stamps. Now we’re working on long-term planning.”

Melissa’s goal is to help all the refugees stand on their own two feet. They won’t be able to rely on government support or donations forever, so they need to lay a good foundation for self-sufficiency. But this requires having steady employment, safe housing, transportation, internet access, medical care and schooling for their children. Many of their children have been unable to attend school for at least five months. Melissa estimates that about 30% of them know some English, 70% do not and some are illiterate even in their own language. 

Securing a steady job requires work permits, social security cards and, in some cases, recertification in their professions. There are engineers, journalists, pilots and bankers among the Afghan arrivals. Until they are certified to practice their profession legally in the U.S., they are taking whatever minimum-wage jobs they can get. Affording housing in Massachusetts on minimum wage is nearly impossible, though, especially for those with large families. To make a comfortable life here, the refugees are facing a daunting uphill battle. 

“Afghans are eager to work and thankful,” says Melissa. “They are not lazy.” A positive, hardworking attitude is only part of the solution, though. Looking at the big picture, Melissa says, “We need a true social service agency to train people so they’re self-sufficient and not a burden to our government. Right now, that’s not available.” 

“Just Like One Body”

The Afghan refugees who fled violence and upheaval in their homeland didn’t land in an ideal situation. While their new life here might be safer, it’s full of obstacles and challenges. It will definitely take more than one hardworking woman in Massachusetts to help them achieve a sustainable, productive life. 

The Messenger of Allah (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever” (“Sahih al-Bukhari” and “Sahih Muslim”). 

Irrespective of what happened in Afghanistan, the new arrivals need kindness, compassion and sympathy. To donate to those resettled in the Merrimack Valley, contact Melissa Marrama via the Andover Islamic Center’s Facebook Page

Laura El Alam, a prolific author who has contributed to numerous publications since 2009, is the founder of Sea Glass Writing & Editing (, where she provides a wide variety of content writing and editing services. 

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