It takes a village to raise a Carlisle Syrian refugee family 

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The tables were full at the dinner held at the First Religious Society on January 27 to benefit the Alloh family, refugees from Syria. (Photo by Linda Myers-Tierney)

The First Religious Society’s (FRS)Union Hall was full to capacity Saturday night as it hosted a delicious Syrian-themed dinner to benefit the Alloh family, Syrian refugees who relocated to Carlisle in 2017. This event had been well anticipated by the FRS community for weeks—with many adults and children planning, organizing and preparing.  Even the Religious Education program’s children and teen-aged youth had been active baking cookies and making hand-painted bowls to be given as gifts to guests. Many of them had already become friends with members of the Alloh family as their classmates in the Carlisle School.

FRS is no stranger to social action and acts of love and helping for those in need. Over the years, special events have supported victims of hurricanes, floods and various natural disasters. There are also ongoing programs regularly supporting the hungry and poor in Boston and Lowell and asylum-seeking refugees locally, as well as many other efforts directed toward others in need.

What overwhelmed me Saturday night was not only the generosity of FRS, which I have come to expect as well as to admire, but also the catalyzing effect that both the Allohs’ arrival and this event have had on the broader community of Carlisle and its environs. Many who have encountered the Allohs since their arrival have been pleased to embrace them as friends and to help them out.

The Allohs come to Carlisle

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Ready to serve the meal are (left to right) Holly West, FRS Director of Religious Education Pam Howell, Rachel Bryon, Claire Beckley, Ashley Bryon and Lorena Nepture. (Photo by Linda Myers-Tierney)
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Sean Kavanagh (left) speaks at the post-dinner discussion while Heba Alloh and
Mohammed Alloh listen and event organizer and FRS Social Action Committee
chairperson Lauree Cameron Eckler (right) prepares to present Heba and Mohammed with a “Hope-Full Bowl” painted by FRS children. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Sean Kavanagh and his wife Donna Vaillancourt have been the Alloh family’s hosts in Carlisle since they came here in 2017. They have provided all manner of support, mentoring and friendship. Sean spoke to the gathering and recounted that when he was recovering from a life-threatening bicycle accident in August 2016 and his wife was changing careers after getting her RN degree, they both wondered how they could be of help in a world torn by war and strife.

About the same time, the Allohs were cleared to come to the U.S. from the Jordanian refugee camp where they had been for five years, after having fled their home in civil war-torn southern Syria. While in the camp, the family went through an extensive vetting process to officially become government-sanctioned refugees. That process provides for them to soon be granted green cards and ultimately citizenship, though this policy is currently under presidential review and may be changed.

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Carlisle classmates and friends Dylan Kattwinkel (left) and Eman Alloh share a smile. (Photo by Linda Myers-Tierney)

The Allohs were sent to Lowell which proved to be another challenging experience for them, due to the city’s resources being already overwhelmed.  After about five months there, thanks to the efforts of Sean and Donna, the Alloh family came to live temporarily in their in-law apartment. While there, the couple continued to search for a more permanent home for their guests and found an empty house in Carlisle owned by the Raymond family, recently inherited by the two sisters, Jessica and Sonya, who had grown up in Carlisle. Sean contacted them, explained the Allohs’ situation, and secured a generous rental agreement for the Alloh family.

A confluence of generosity and gratitude

Sean cites the homeowners’ generosity as part of a long list of blessings that have materialized. When the children were given some bikes, Sean took them to the bike shop in Acton, Pedal Power, to be fitted for helmets.  When the owner heard their story, she insisted on donating the helmets to the children. When his neighbors heard of the family moving in, they appeared at his door the next day with gifts of clothing, a department store gift card and an open invitation for the children to play on the swing set in their yard. Of the many blessings Sean is grateful for, he sums it up by saying “I am grateful for the Allohs helping us all to realize who we can be.”

Marianne Boswell also spoke, representing LEXRAP, the all-volunteer nonprofit refugee assistance program which is currently supporting eight area families. Her organization provides tutoring, English as a second language (ESL) training, social worker assistance in liaising with schools, help in finding housing, job training, clothing and laptop computers. Many of these generous LEXRAP volunteers attended this festive event, telling their stories informally over dinner with other attendees. 

Throughout the evening many people shared with me the happy experience they have had with members of the Alloh family, often initially through the school-aged Alloh children who have become friends of their own children.  My friend Talie Kattwinkel told me “the Alloh children are happy, outgoing and friendly. They are good friends of my children and wonderful additions to the Carlisle School community.” Her daughter Dylan has become close friends with Eman Alloh, a lovely girl who is the oldest of the family’s five children. 

Brindalyn Chen, who worked tirelessly to help plan and set up for the event, became friends with the Allohs initially by helping with preschool carpooling. She enthuses that they are a very warm, low-key family. “It is refreshing and inspiring being around them. All the children, ages three to 14, look out for each other in such a warm and loving way.” She recalls how fun it was having the Allohs trick-or-treat with her family. “They took right to it, due to the candy involved!” Brin explains that Saturday’s event was designed to help with both fundraising and friendraising.  She has offered to set up a network of volunteer resources for tutoring, rides, play dates, tips on caring for a house and friendly visits to practice English. 

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Carlisle School Superintendent Jim O’Shea (far left) who has welcomed the family into the Carlisle Schools chats with (left to right) Frank Rigg, Art Milliken and Tim Hult after dinner.  (Photo by Ellen Huber)

As for fundraising, the goal is to provide enough assistance so the family can ultimately become self-sufficient.  Along with increasing job skills and language proficiency, and providing the children an education, that will allow them to become productive American citizens. The family is also paying off a $6,000 debt owed to the U.S. government for the plane fare to bring them here from Jordan, and dealing with unforeseen expenses like medical and dental costs, as well as home repairs.

As Sean and Marianne wrapped up their remarks and discussion time with the compassionate crowd, both Mohammed Alloh and his wife Heba asked to say a few words. Mohammed expressed his gratitude to be here with great humility and warmth. A hard-working carpenter who commutes 90 minutes each way daily to provide for his family, he shared with great emotion that he left behind in Syria both his parents and his brother and family. Yet here in Carlisle he has been privileged to find another brother in Sean Kavanagh and a sister in Donna Vaillancourt.

Heba too wished to convey her gratitude. Through the help of an interpreter, she recalled the tremendous challenges and fear she had felt for the family’s safety while they were living in Lowell, saying it almost made her wish she could return to Jordan. Yet once her family became settled in Carlisle all that changed. Heba said, “Carlisle—this is America! This is my Dreamland!” It is clear that the Allohs are as grateful to be in Carlisle as Carlisle is to have them.

Donna Vaillancourt’s observation is that “Refugees are typically sent to a city or town that they can afford. However what they really need is to be in a town that can afford to help them.” Sean asked us to “Imagine if every town took just one family and surrounded them with support.” Event organizer and FRS Social Action Committee chairperson Lauree Cameron Eckler told me “It takes a village to raise a family. Carlisle is that village for the Allohs.”

How you can help

Financial contributions of checks can be sent to FRS Carlisle, PO Box 817, Carlisle, memo Alloh Family. Donations via PayPal can be made at uucarlisle.org.  To lend a hand in other ways, contact Brin Chen at brin.webster@gmail.com or Jean Bagnaschi at jbagnaschi@comcast.net.  ∆

No part of Syria is safe from violence

The U.S. State Department has declared that Syria does not have a single safe area due to war and terrorism. 

  • Over half a million Syrians have been killed in just the last seven years

  • 5.5 million have fled the country 

  • 6.1 million remaining there have lost their homes

—Boston Globe