Needham Advocate, Storyteller Named Commonwealth Heroine

June 3, 2024
• Rinaz Mala and 121 other Massachusetts women will receive the recognition at the State House later this month.

Rinaz Mala is a Muslim woman, but in Needham, she celebrates Christmas, Passover, Ramadan and just about every religious holiday of every faith.

It’s a testament to her devotion to the town and love for her neighbors, who invite her to take part in their own traditions — in their eyes, she’s a heroine.

For her role in creating the Needham Multicultural Festival last year and her pioneering contributions on various town committees, Mala was named a member of the Commonwealth Heroines Class of 2024. Through the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, legislators nominate local women who have positively impacted their communities through service.

When Rep. Denise Garlick called Mala to deliver the news, she was left in disbelief.

“I’m really, really honored. It was a nice surprise,” Mala said. “It brought tears to my eyes, honestly. Tears of joy.”

Garlick praised Mala for her creation of the Multicultural Festival, where about 20 different countries were represented through food, performance and connection. In her nomination, Garlick wrote that Mala has made a positive impact “by fostering an environment where all people are valued members of our community.”

Rinaz Mala, the Needham recipient of the Commonwealth Heroines Class of 2024 distinction. (Jill Goldman Photography / Courtesy Rinaz Mala)

“In her work that she does, there is a sense of her just opening her arms and welcoming anyone into the event, to whatever gathering it is,” Garlick said in an interview. “It’s something that you really can feel.”

The 21st annual ceremony honoring the nominees will take place Friday, June 14 at the Gardner Auditorium at the State House. Previous Needham honorees include Deb Schmill, Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik and Colleen Schaller.

Mala grew up in Aleppo, Syria, where she lived comfortably with her family — a luxury they were uniquely afforded as Kurds, who compose a minority in the country that faced discrimination and persecution. But after the civil war started, Mala’s father lost his factory and thus the family’s financial stability, pushing Mala to move out of Aleppo.

Mala and her two children left Syria in late 2013, settling in Connecticut and later Needham in 2017. As a single mom, Mala said she wanted to form a community around their family of three, so they joined the Plugged In Band Program — Mala plays piano and has a musical background.

Through a connection at Plugged In, Mala joined the Needham Area Immigration Justice Task Force, an advocacy organization that works to welcome new arrivals. She participated in the task force’s Suitcase Stories, an event in which refugees and immigrants share their journey moving to the United States.

Stepping onstage back in 2018, Mala recounted her immigration story for the first time for an audience, marking a full-circle moment for her. From there, Mala forged new friendships and discovered new ways to be involved, including joining the Human Rights Committee, Needham Diversity Initiative and an interfaith book club. She’ll be co-hosting the next iteration of Suitcase Stories June 20.

“The town was very, very welcoming. The people are so sweet in Needham,” Mala said. “Everybody opened their homes, their hearts to us.”

When community members feel invisible, the local Immigration Justice Task Force aims to make them visible and welcome, longtime member Cheryl Aglio-Girelli said. Through activism and legislative work, the group hopes to support immigrants and their rights.

A natural liaison and storyteller, Mala brings her personal experience and connections with her, which makes her an integral part of that mission, Aglio-Girelli said. In short, “she’s a pretty remarkable woman,” she said.

“That voice is important, and she brings that perspective,” Aglio-Girelli said. “It’s always important to remind groups when they’re working on issues to have people that represent those issues at the table.”

With the Needham Resilience Network, Mala belongs to a diverse cohort of Needhamites with intersectional identities, all of whom partner to “bridge build across difference” and find ways to respond to hate and violence, co-director Dr. Beth Pinals said.

Pinals, who co-directs the network alongside Dr. Nichole Argo, said Mala leads efforts among Needham residents from varied backgrounds and experiences, all to ensure they feel heard. Mala listens, advocates and is brave enough to share her own story, Pinals said.

“She has tremendous initiative and optimism,” Pinals said, “and I think those lend themselves to being able to be vulnerable, expose things about herself appropriately, always in the community, invite others into dialogue with her.”

When asked what drives her to take an active role in the community, Mala said it all comes back to her children. She said she is “so blessed to live in Needham.”

“I want to show my children that it’s good to make positive change and advocate for those who may not always have a voice in the community,” Mala said. “The kindness of the people inspired me to put more efforts to promote equality and diversity and inclusion in the town.”

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