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State police pursued homeless Afghan refugee with helicopter and sniffer dog
State police pursued homeless Afghan refugee with helicopter and sniffer dog

WORCESTER, MA – On a sunny Monday in late June, a State Police helicopter took off from Plymouth Municipal Airport bound for Worcester to assist in the arrest of a man suspected of breaking into cars at the Worcester Recover Center hospital on Belmont Street.

During the chase on June 24, the state police helicopter circled over Green Hill Park for about an hour starting at 3:30 p.m. This was one of several “surveillance flights” the state police used during the chase, according to flight records. On the ground, officers tracked the 20-year-old with a sniffer dog through Green Hill Park and across the park’s golf course.

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“Officers searched the surrounding wooded areas, repeatedly spotted the suspect, and conducted several foot chases,” state police said in a description of the incident.

The pursuit ended after about six hours at 7:30 p.m., when police found the man hiding in a wooded area next to the golf course.

The man was an Afghan refugee who had been living homeless in Green Hill Park for months. He arrived in Massachusetts about a year after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, effectively ending the 20-year war that began shortly after Sept. 11. His arrest, aid groups say, sheds light on the range of problems some refugees face after arriving in Massachusetts, from finding housing to coping with the trauma of growing up in a war zone.

The man – whom Worcester Patch is referring to by the pseudonym Ahmed due to his vulnerable status – is one of millions of Afghans around the world who have fled their homeland in recent years. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the past two decades have been particularly tough for children, who grew up amid violence and widespread food and water shortages.

“The Afghan population has been pushed to its limits by ongoing conflict, high levels of displacement, the impact of Covid-19, natural disasters and increasing poverty,” the agency said.

According to the Refugee & Immigrant Assistance Center, Ahmed arrived in Worcester with his mother in 2022. The aid organization found an apartment for the couple and helped them enroll in English classes and government social programs. Ahmed found work at the Worcester Islamic Center mosque on Mountain Street. But he also struggled with mental health issues and began using drugs.

Ahmed is one of about 600 Afghan refugees who resettled in Worcester after the U.S. war ended in 2021. Despite the community and Ahmed’s family’s efforts to help, including arranging drug treatment, he relapsed into drug use several times and became homeless.

Refugee social workers said Ahmed’s case is not the norm for new arrivals. Many Afghans living in the Worcester area have become established, working in jobs ranging from Uber drivers to interpreters. In one case, an illiterate Afghan man worked long hours as a pizza delivery driver to save up money to buy a house in Holden. His daughter graduated from Worcester State University this year with a degree in public health, a social worker said.

Stories of refugees thriving in the U.S. come amidst major challenges. There is an extreme shortage of affordable housing in Massachusetts, including in Worcester. A recent housing affordability report found that a person making the federal minimum wage of $15 would have to work 98 hours a week to comfortably afford a one-bedroom apartment. Worcester was also recently ranked as the third worst market for renters in the country.

Jillian Phillips, program director at the Friendly House Office of New Americans in Worcester, said refugees can also face cultural barriers once they find a job or housing. Even a simple sick day can lead to unemployment because refugees may not understand the work culture in the U.S., she said.

Phillips did not know Ahmed, but said refugees in need of mental health care face even greater hurdles due to language and a general shortage of therapists.

“Even when they do have access to mental health care (after overcoming language barriers, cultural hurdles, etc.), they face the challenge that there are not enough therapists, not enough appropriately trained therapists to address the mental health and trauma of refugees. Additionally, the nature of their insurance often limits the amount (or type) of therapy they can access,” Phillips said via email.

Massachusetts is also in the midst of a crisis as new arrivals overwhelm the state’s family shelter system. Authorities are now trying to solve the crisis through a combination of limited resources and harsh words toward migrants planning to come here.

Last month, Governor Maura Healey sent a delegation to Texas to tell aid workers and the migrants themselves that Massachusetts was at capacity.

“It is imperative that we spread the word that our shelters are full so families can plan accordingly to ensure they have a safe place to go,” State Emergency Management Director L. Scott Rice said in a news release after the trip.

Healey set a cap of 7,500 families in the state’s shelter system in 2023, and hundreds of families are now on waiting lists above that cap. The state recently upped the ante, limiting shelter stays to nine months. On Monday, a new rule went into effect banning migrants from staying overnight at Logan Airport.

Ahmed was jailed after his arrest on June 24 on two counts of theft and two counts of burglary, court records show. He was released on June 25 after an arraignment and has another court date in August.

State police did not immediately respond to questions about the arrest, including the use of a helicopter and whether officers had asked social service organizations about Ahmed before the June pursuit. However, police appear to have known him before the arrest: His full name is on the June 7 arrest warrant that officers at Holden Barracks requested.

“We have a wide range of capabilities that can assist officers in making arrests in a variety of situations,” a state police spokesman said by email when asked about the chase.

Family, friends and social workers had tried to help Ahmed until his arrest – and according to people who know him, they have not done so since then.

On Monday afternoon, Ahmed’s usual campsite in Green Hill Park appeared to be deserted — now all that was visible was a crumpled blanket draped over a bush, along with food wrappers, tuna cans and moldy orange peels. After the arrest, it’s unclear whether he went home to his mother, went to a homeless shelter or fled to a campsite deeper in the woods somewhere in Worcester.

By Aurora