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Nathalie Jean Philippe looks weary, dark circles under her eyes as she leans back in a chair and rests her hands on her belly. Her husband Manno Exil holds his head in his hands next to her hunched over, while their 5-year-old son colors on the floor.

They’ve been sleeping on the floor of Logan International Airport for over three weeks. By day, they come here, to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan. It’s their only solace.

“I don’t like staying at the airport,” Philippe said, through a Haitian Creole interpreter, “but I don’t know where else to go.”

There’s a massive hall at the church, where over 100 migrants — mostly Haitian — are talking amongst themselves as fans whir. A few people are on two computers in a nearby alcove, printing. Still others lay on the floor of the hallways sleeping, or on phones. Seniors sit in another room, sipping water and watching the activity around them. In crowded classrooms, children and adults can be heard practicing English phrases. Two young women recognize each other and hug.

Small children run throughout; teenagers are outside with staff playing soccer and climbing on the playground. Some mothers and children sit outside under trees, peeling vegetables to prep for a lunchtime meal that volunteers will cook later.

The church has been hosting migrants from the airport since January, when Dr. Geralde Gabeau, head of the Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI), asked the Rev. Zenetta Armstrong for her help. The church often has over 150 visitors daily, with most coming from Logan Airport but some from an overflow shelter in Cambridge.

As Massachusetts has seen a growing number of migrants — mostly from Haiti, Central and South America — over the past year. The state is the only one with a right-to-shelter law, which mandates families and pregnant individuals are housed after filing an application.

The emergency shelter system is already at capacity with over 7,500 families in state-run shelters and over 700 more on an overflow list. The families at Logan Airport haven’t even made it onto that list.

The gap the church fills

“We’re providing a warm space for them to stay during the day because they cannot stay at the airport during the day. They have to leave by a certain time every morning,” said lay leader Leonie Drummond.

“We’re all immigrant in some way, whether we want to admit it or not,” Drummond added. “Therefore, it’s important to treat these people with dignity.”

Off the main hall of the church, a large room has luggage piled high. Families leave their things there during the day, which they must then lug back. Massport confirmed they can’t store luggage at Logan Airport.

The church doesn’t directly receive funds from the state, Drummond said, although IFSI has a contract with the state to provide assistance there. It doesn’t have the resources to provide recently arrived families with everything they need, so leaders have been asking for donations — like suitcases with wheels to transport all their belongings to and from the airport to the church every day.

Drummond has a waitlist just for suitcases, and many families who arrived weeks ago in May still don’t have one. The church has an ongoing wishlist for families’ needs, like toiletries and underwear.

A room with suitcases piled on the floor and on top of each other
The room at the church where migrant families leave luggage by day before they lug it 14 miles back to Logan Airport.
Sarah Betancourt GBH News

The Immigrant Family Services Institute has staff, teachers and caseworkers go to the church, which serves as a day center for the migrants. Health care workers also stop by.

Pastor “Keke” Dieufort Fleurissaint, founder of the New Alliance Center, was walking around talking to young men at the church on Tuesday, shaking hands and speaking words of encouragement.

Fleurissaint likes to visit often so he can keep elected officials appraised of the situation, and see if there’s anything he can do, like bring a backpack over.

“This is the overflow to the overflow [shelters],” he said.

A respite

For Philippe and Exil, the Mattapan church is the one place they feel welcome.

They left Haiti, where life “was difficult, very very complicated,” said Philippe. The family went to Brazil and traveled north, crossing the southern border into Texas. There, they surrendered themselves to U.S. Border Patrol and were granted humanitarian parole, an immigration status from the federal government that allows migrants fleeing violence and turmoil to remain in the United States legally for two years.

From there, they flew to Boston. They arrived to Terminal E and have returned there almost every night in the weeks since.

“It’s uncomfortable. I don’t feel well at all, I never sleep at the airport,” she said.

Security at the airport gets the family an Uber to the church, and then they make the long trek almost 14 miles back on public transport. Jennifer Mehigan, spokesperson for Massport, told GBH News the state agency pays for transport to the state’s welcome centers or other places, like the Mattapan church, that are offering help during the day.

Philippe recently fainted at the church and stayed there for three nights while she recovered. She said it’s the only time she’s been able to sleep well.

“Here, I can eat something. My son, the little boy, doesn’t eat at all in the airport, but he will eat here,” she said. Staff at the church told GBH News that food at the airport is expensive and also out of the ordinary for families who are used to their own cuisine in Haiti.

During the three days she stayed at the church, Philippe made her family a Haitian beef stew in the kitchen. Describing that meal was the one time during her interview with GBH News that she smiled.

In the hot church kitchen, there’s giggling and the occasional slammed pot. Several women are cooking, and Angeline Theleamaphe is stirring a pot of rice, or diri blan. This one pot alone will serve 80 people. Theleamaphe is Haitian and volunteers as a cook.

“I like to help people, and I like to cook,” she said, smiling shyly. She shows off dozens of drumsticks (poul fri) lined up and a pot with red sauce and onion, known as sòs ak zonyon — part of a staple Haitian meal.

Angeline Theleamaphe is a volunteer at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan. She shows chicken and rice cooking for lunch, serving over 150 people a day.
Sarah Betancourt GBH News

What comes next

Exil broke down crying throughout the interview. Philippe said that, that morning, he woke up saying he “felt like he was going to die, like he was going to pass away, that he was exhausted.”

“I’m not feeling well at all. The only time I’ve been comfortable is when I’ve come here,” Exil said.

Philippe is five months pregnant, but said that a caseworker told her that housing can’t be prioritized until she’s seven months into her pregnancy. The state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities said that, as shelter units become available for migrants waiting for emergency assistance, they place families on the waitlist for them.

“If we can find a place to live, before the baby is born — any place, it would be better,” she said. Philippe has been seeing a doctor with Boston Medical Center, coordinated by staff at the Eastern Nazarene College welcome center in Quincy.

She said no one has updated her on when her family can expect help, and how her emergency assistance case is going for shelter.

How you can help

Several readers reached out to GBH News asking how they can help. You can call the Immigrant Family Services Institute at 617-322-1348 to discuss donating suitcases or aiding in other ways.