A city built on refugees looks at Trump’s plan with fear

Zainab Abdo, 21, a Syrian refugee, left, and Tara Media, an Iraqi refugee, at a job training session on Thursday with Vito LaMura, an International Institute of New England volunteer in Lowell, Massachusetts.

LOWELL, Mass. — When Hawo Ahmed, her two sisters and their mother arrived here late Wednesday night, the Somali family could hardly believe their good fortune.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Ahmed, 24, said.

Their arrival was all the more remarkable because they may be among the last refugees allowed into the United States before President Donald Trump closes the borders. He signed an executive order suspending the nation’s resettlement program temporarily, with an eye toward shrinking it when it resumes.


Ahmed and her family had never heard of Lowell, an old mill city about 30 miles northwest of Boston with red brick factories lining its canals, until they searched for it on Google from Kenya two weeks ago.

But if Lowell is strange to them, having them here is not strange for Lowell.

Immigrants, including many refugees, are part of the fabric of life in this city of 108,000, which boasts a kaleidoscope of cultures. Downtown is bursting with restaurants serving Portuguese, Mexican, Greek, Cambodian, Thai and Japanese fare. Lowell features a statue of Buddha, a plaque honoring Nelson Mandela and a big sign in the high school that welcomes visitors in multiple languages. Colorful flags of various nationalities hang in the windows of homes here, and ethnic festivals are common. Arabic is regularly heard in shops.

For a city with such a heavy refugee presence, Trump’s order is not an abstract political issue, but one that could alter families’ lives and even the community itself — especially if, as people here fear, the temporary policy is made permanent.

Farouq Ali, an Iraqi refugee who arrived in Lowell in 2009 and works with new refugees, said he and other Iraqis in the area had been exchanging near-constant Facebook messages about Trump’s impending policy. Over the weekend, he said, dozens of Iraqi and Syrian women gathered at a restaurant to share their fears.


“Most Iraqis have some of their families back in Iraq, so they are struggling to bring them to Lowell, to America,” Ali said. Trump’s policy, he said, could shatter their hopes.

Old mills converted into an apartment complex in Lowell.

Lowell and its many nonprofit organizations devoted to refugees and immigrant groups are haltingly coming to terms with the idea that, at least for now, the flow of refugees here could stop or slow, a startling turnaround for a city built by immigrant labor.

People from French Canada, Ireland, Portugal and Poland powered Lowell’s once-mighty textile mills starting in the 1800s, and immigrants and refugees have found homes here ever since. It is a place where the history of immigration in the United States is writ large.

Many of the mills closed before World War II, and the city’s population declined, but it picked up again in the late 1970s as a wave of Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge came to the city. Today, Cambodians make up some 13 percent of the population, and Lowell has the second-largest Cambodian community in the country, after Long Beach, California. A Cambodian represents part of Lowell in the state Legislature.


“Lowell has been replenished and re-energized by refugees and immigrants for generations,” said Jeffrey Thielman, president and chief executive of the International Institute of New England, which works with the federal government to resettle refugees in Lowell, Boston and Manchester, New Hampshire.

“We won’t feel it right away,” Thielman said of a halt in refugees, “but businesses will not have enough workers, and not having enough workers will inhibit Lowell’s ability to grow.”

The region’s economy and its immigrants are closely intertwined. Southwick, a factory in nearby Haverhill that makes suits for Brooks Brothers, offers four English classes per week for about 70 refugees and other immigrants who work there. Thithi Aye, a Burmese refugee who arrived here in 2010, carpooled from Lowell to her job at Southwick every day with other refugees, including one from Iraq. Eventually, she was able to buy her own car, and then a condo.

Employers see hiring refugees as a win for everyone, as supply meets demand.

“They use us as a steppingstone for the betterment of their families,” said John Martynec, Southwick’s senior vice president for manufacturing.

Because there are so many nonprofit organizations, volunteers and government services here to support refugees, a decline in the number of refugees could lead to a withering of those support services.

“If everything’s closed off for a period of time, the problem would then be figuring out how to rebuild the infrastructure to welcome people in,” said Robert Forrant, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, whose classes include third-generation Cambodians.


Samantha Cail, the owner of HyperText Bookstore and Café in Lowell, said she found the idea of barring refugees “horrifying.”

The possibility of closing the borders has unsettled some residents who are not part of the refugee community. Samantha Cail, 49, the owner of HyperText Bookstore and Café, said she found it “horrifying.”

“This administration’s ability to demonize the ‘other’ is very frightening to me,” said Cail, who voted for Hillary Clinton.

The vast variety of cultures and ethnicities was one reason she was attracted to Lowell, where she has lived for 11 years.

“There’s always Cambodian operas or amazing, yearlong festivals that really add color and depth to the community,” she said.

Cail said she was not worried that terrorists would slip through, in part because the vetting process, which takes at least two years, seemed so rigorous.

But Cheryl Carville, 54, a longtime Lowell resident who works in retail and voted for Trump, was more concerned. She said that her philosophy was “live and let live,” but that she could not think of a reason the borders should not be closed for 120 days.

“You got to know what’s going on,” she said, adding that she wondered how many refugees the city could really absorb. “You got to know who’s coming in here.”

“At some point,” she asked, “how much can you take in, and how much before it starts hurting everybody else?”

Trump says he wants a smaller refugee program with “extreme vetting” as a safeguard against terrorism. Lowell is a mostly Democratic city — Clinton won it with 65 percent of the vote — but when Trump held a rally here a year ago, he easily packed the arena.


David Donovan, 25, said immigrants had enriched Lowell but added, “Given that we’re in a state of war, it’s O.K. to freeze the border.”

David Donovan, 25, an electrician and longtime Lowell resident, agreed that it was “reasonable” to suspend the resettlement program, even though he had voted for Clinton.

Cambodians in particular, he said, had done much to enrich Lowell. But, he added, “given that we’re in a state of war, it’s OK to freeze the border.”

In the meantime, the city is continuing to absorb refugees like the newly arrived Ahmed family. On Thursday, the International Institute of New England helped organize a job fair here at which 18 other refugees met employers who were looking for workers in the health care field.

Lisa Gurgone, executive director of the Home Care Aide Council, told the refugees that the aging of New England virtually guaranteed them jobs in health care.

“We need all of you,” she said.

Among the refugees who attended the job fair was Zainab Abdo, 21, who came in May from Syria, where her home in Aleppo had been bombed. She said she was relieved to be here, had been treated well and was taking nursing classes at Middlesex Community College.

“There is security here,” she said. “We feel safe.”

And yet, with Trump’s executive order in the works, she remains nervous about the future, especially for relatives still in Syria and Turkey, who she had hoped would be able to join her family here.


Luis Pedroso, an immigrant from the Azores who helped found an electronics factory, said that he had employees who were refugees and that he viewed Trump’s order as an overreaction.

“Lowell has been known as a location for so many different, diverse parts of the world,” he said. “It’s a shame that Mr. Trump sees that he needs to be doing this.”


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