New Arrivals Face Financial Hurdles in Needham

February 15, 2024
• This is part three of a multi-part Needham Local series on refugee resettlement and its face in Needham. Moving to Needham is an investment, especially for those new to the country.

While teaching his financial literacy class at Needham High School, Adam Cole challenges students to imagine living paycheck to paycheck to understand what severe “financial strain” feels like. For real life examples, his high schoolers may not have to look far.

When they wrap up their lesson, Cole points students to local resources through which they could help community members in need. One such organization is the Needham Community Council.

Until recently, Cole was simply an NCC donor, but he has since moved beyond that status, taking on a more apt one: NCC teacher.

For five weeks in the fall, he taught the council’s first financial literacy class. About 10 adults joined Cole for a collective seven-and-a-half hours, during which he covered credit scores, banking, budgeting, the psychology around spending habits and more.

Needham High School teacher Adam Cole taught a financial literacy class through the Needham Community Council last fall. (Courtesy Needham Community Council)

“It became a little bit of a community around financial literacy,” Cole said, “[with] everybody trying to make little incremental improvements.”

In recruiting participants for the class, NCC Executive Director Sandy Robinson said they looked to individuals who used their food pantry and engaged with their English language program.

“Particularly the English language learners, many of them are very sophisticated in their own homelands,” Robinson said, “but our systems are different [with] things like credit reports.”

The NCC now looks to continue the class in the spring, this time catered more toward new arrivals. Cole said the prospect of another course signals not just an interest in personal finance, but a need.

Economic Displacement

Sara Shine, director of Needham’s Youth and Family Services, said the office has seen “an influx of families that have come from war-torn countries,” but families arrive in Needham with diverse needs. Youth and Family Services aims to steer them toward resources and organizations that would best support them, Shine said.

One such resource is the Quincy Family Resource Center, which connects residents to SNAP benefits, food support, stable housing and more. Needham and its community partners also collaborate to help families sign up for health insurance, find a summer camp and understand different systems, Shine said.

Newcomers find short-term solutions, like living with friends, but it’s hard for them to remain in Needham due to the limited supply of affordable housing, Shine said. Units that are available come with long waitlists, she said.

“Rent in Needham is very high,” Shine said. “The housing market is very, very difficult to navigate, to stay.”

Denis Vlasov moved from Russia with his wife and two daughters in April last year. Facing a future of uncertainty, the Vlasov family left friends and loved ones behind to escape the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

An oncologist by profession, Vlasov wrote via email that the decision to leave was a difficult one. The language barrier also poses a challenge — he emailed his responses in English after translating them from Russian. Beginners’ English courses have proven helpful, Vlasov added.

When adults arrive from overseas, their job qualifications and careers often don’t translate, Shine said. Finding employment becomes even more difficult when trying to process grief and painful experiences, she added.

“We’re seeing a lot of parents that were doctors or they had these jobs in their countries, they were doing really well,” she said. “And then they come here, and their certifications don’t count anymore, and they can’t speak the language and they’re finding it really hard to find a job at all.”

Vlasov’s life has been divided into two parts: before and after the invasion of Ukraine. Since the conflict began, “everything happening looked and felt like a nightmare,” Vlasov wrote.

“There is no justification or explanation for fratricidal war,” Vlasov wrote. “Nothing justifies bloodshed, deaths and broken lives of innocent people, feelings of helplessness, shame and fear for the future of my family in particular and the country in general. Unwillingness to partake in this crime.”

Refugees also cross the border feeling isolated and simultaneously bombarded by messages from family and images of the violence they left, Shine said. That trauma is a grim reality for families, Shine said, and the need for mental health resources has grown.

Vlasov’s home in Russia, he wrote, was “stolen from us.” The family applied for political asylum and will now call the United States home.

“There is no way back for us,” he wrote. “Maybe someday we will be able to visit our parents’ graves, however hardly more than that.”

The Vlasovs live with friends in Needham, where they hope to “get on our own feet as soon as possible” with the help of local resources. Since moving to town, the family of four has found help with food, clothing, registering for school, finding pool time and more, Vlasov wrote.

When asked about a financial class catered toward refugees, Vlasov expressed intrigue and hesitance.

“Financial management courses are certainly interesting,” he wrote. “There is one disadvantage, I don’t speak English.”

Money, Cole said, is a tool that allows anyone — including those facing hardship — to live their life on their own terms. That includes refugees.

“By increasing their financial literacy, increasing their comfort with using money as a tool, you’re getting them in the place to live a life that they want,” Cole said. “Less stress, less anxiety, more opportunities, more options. And I think that’s good for everybody.”

Previous installments in this series detailed how the Needham Public Schools aim to accommodate new arrivals and one Ukrainian woman’s new life in Needham. A future installment will cover how refugees can find resource networks amidst fellow residents.

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