Haitian Migrants Who Found Safety at UUA Headquarters in Boston Share Their Stories

Haitian Migrants Who Found Safety at UUA Headquarters in Boston Share Their Stories

Last January, the UUA offered empty commercial space at its headquarters to the state as a free temporary overnight shelter. Roderick, Angela, and their young child are among those granted haven there.

Elaine McArdle
A group of people in a conference room seated at a large conference table with laptops in front of them as they pay attention to the front of the room where someone is speaking to them.

Guests at the temporary overnight shelter hosted at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston spend time during the day at YMCA participating in activities, including this computer class.

© 2024 Caribbean Youth Club Boston


It’s been a long and dangerous journey for Rodrick, Angela, and their 4-year-old daughter: from fleeing their violence-torn homeland of Haiti to sleeping for weeks on the floor of an airport to living, this spring, in a temporary overnight shelter at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston.

Last January, in a faith-based response to the growing number of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts with nowhere to live, the UUA offered an empty 10,000-square-foot commercial space on the sixth floor of its building on Farnsworth Street to the state rent-free as a temporary overnight shelter.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a “right-to-shelter” law, passed in 1983 to mandate that unhoused families and pregnant people be provided with emergency shelter. In fall 2023, after declaring a state of emergency related to a massive influx of migrants, Gov. Maura Healey announced the SafetyNet Shelter Grant Program in partnership with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay to support community organizations and faith-based groups to set up short-term shelters. The UUA shelter is supported in part by a SafetyNet grant awarded to the UUA, the Black Refugee and Immigrant Community Coalition (BRICC), and the YMCA of Greater Boston.

“All children deserve a safe place to sleep,” Carey McDonald, the UUA’s Executive Vice President, said in announcing the UUA’s decision. “As a religious community headquartered in Boston, we consider it an act of faithful witness to use our facilities to do our part to support families in need, including migrant families who are simply seeking safety for their loved ones. We hope other building owners will take seriously whether their space can also be used in this way.”

To help Unitarian Universalists understand their lived experience, Rodrick and Angela, both 30 years of age, offered to be interviewed by UU World over a Zoom call from the shelter one evening in May. With the sound of laughing children in the background, an interpreter facilitated the conversation between UU World and the couple, whose primary language is Haitian Creole. They chose to be identified by their first names for this article.

Seeking Stability and Safety in the United States

Rodrick and Angela met in Chile, where each had gone to escape violence and lack of economic opportunity in Haiti.

“When [Rodrick] lived in Haiti, one of many reasons he left was security”—meaning lack of personal safety—“and second, the economy was really low, they weren’t able to get jobs. It was really hard for them over there, so they made their way here,” explained the interpreter, who asked not to be named.

One of Rodrick’s brothers was shot in Haiti, and his parents died early because they were too poor to access good healthcare, Rodrick said. In Chile, with a dream of becoming a doctor, Rodrick completed the high school education he’d been forced to abandon at home.

“There is pretty much no law for young ones growing up,” Rodrick said. “There’s no work, no structure. If young ones want to learn something, they don’t have the funds to do it.”

In Chile he met Angela, who was studying to be a nurse in Haiti but, like he, left in search of a better life. They became domestic partners, then parents to their girl. Rodrick found work, and they were able to afford a car. But someone tried to steal their car, and in the process of stopping the crime Rodrick was stabbed twice. At that point, they decided to head to the United States looking for “a better future for him and his kid and his partner,” explained the interpreter.

Asked why they chose the United States, Rodrick answered, “The reason we chose America is to get stability that’s missing in other countries.”

With nothing but the clothes they were wearing, the family left Chile in September 2023 and walked north. Sometimes they could afford transportation, but in Panama they walked for five days. They eventually reached Mexico, where they stayed for five months awaiting approval from U.S. immigration authorities to enter the United States. When it came, they entered through Brownsville, Texas, then spent several days in San Antonio in the home of a man who assists migrants, trying to amass enough money to fly to Boston. Angela’s sister in Haiti sent them the funds and they took a flight that landed in Logan International Airport—where, without any alternatives, they made their temporary home.

For sixteen days, the family lived in a busy terminal amid scores of other migrants who also slept there for lack of options. Thousands of travelers hustled to their destinations past the sight of dozens of makeshift beds lined up along the terminal walls. It was loud, uncomfortable, far from ideal—but much safer than what Rodrick and Angela experienced in Haiti and Chile.

As a family with a preschool child, Rodrick and Angela came to the attention of the Black Refugee and Immigrant Community Coalition (BRICC), which assists over 6,000 Afro-Caribbean/Black immigrants and refugees annually in Boston with critical resettlement services, including emergency housing, food, and job training and placement.

Launched in 2013, BRICC centers disproportionately disadvantaged Black/Haitian refugees and immigrants in its services and has placed over 120 unhoused and housing insecure Haitian refugees and immigrants in safe, culturally connected housing in Boston.

“We were lucky to meet BRICC,” Rodrick said. With the organization’s help, he said he believes good things are destined for the family in the future.

Forming Community and Building Bonds at the UUA Temporary Shelter in Boston

Rows of green cots in an open office space with white walls and gray carpet. The cots have bundles on them.

The Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters at 24 Farnsworth St. is temporarily sheltering unhoused families overnight on its sixth floor in partnership with local aid groups.

© 2024 Ted Resnikoff/UUA

BRICC manages the UUA shelter, and when it opened in early March, Rodrick, Angela, and their daughter were among twenty-five families and pregnant people who spent each night there for the next four months (the initial agreement was to operate until the end of May, which was extended to the end of June).

“Rodrick says from the airport to here is like living in a mansion,” the interpreter said, as everyone on the Zoom call laughed together. The airport was freezing cold, and it was unpredictable as to when food would arrive, whereas at the Farnsworth shelter, BRICC has a reliable schedule for meals and showers, Rodrick added.

The interpreter, who provides security services at the shelter, said there have been “no problems at all there,” adding, “Everyone understands they are all on the same page, they have all got to get together. They are pretty much a community, they bond because they spend their days together, they come here [to the overnight shelter] together, they ride together, they do bond.”

All the guests are from Haiti, he said, although some, like Rodrick and Angela, arrived in the United States via other countries including Brazil.

Each morning, the adults were transported to a day shelter at the YMCA, which provided services including access to job training and language classes. It also ran an on-site daycare, where Rodrick and Angela’s daughter spent her days; school-age children were enrolled in local schools. Their daughter is doing well and has made friends at the daycare.

“She thinks it’s fun,” said Rodrick.

Rodrick took classes to learn English and the couple spent their days looking for work. “He says, ‘When you switch countries the most important thing is to find a job so you can have a better life,’” said the interpreter. Rodrick said he’s applied for at least five jobs, but that the language barrier has been a problem.

In anticipation of the UUA temporary shelter closing, BRICC helped Rodrick and Angela find an apartment of their own in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, which has a strong Caribbean and African American heritage. They visited the apartment and are excited about moving in at the end of June, they said.

What does Rodrick think of the people in Boston? “He said he can’t speak for all of them, but those he’s met so far, it’s nothing but good,” says the interpreter, especially the people at BRICC, who have “been nothing but nice.”

Even though they have no family in Massachusetts, the couple like it and want to stay. “He says BRICC is his family,” the interpreter said.

Rodrick “said what he got from his situation and wants others to know, the main thing is education,” said the interpreter. “He said he personally wants to study and learn more, to be a better citizen in society.”

One reason Rodrick wants “to be a doctor is because if the health system back at home was good, his mom and dad would still be here. Back at home, the health system is not for the poor. He said what the poor people get is pretty much not good, that’s why he lost his mom and dad.”

Angela, who is considering resuming her nursing studies, said she believes the United States offers opportunities for young people to study and help themselves in the future.

So, one day, not too long from now, Rodrick may be a doctor and Angela may be a nurse?

Rodrick grins and gives a thumbs-up. Then he waves goodbye and says, in English, “Thank you and God bless.”