Brazil…by way of Boston

Immigrant Community welcomes back New England JFON’s Woburn Clinic

With names reflecting their colonial heritage—Framingham, Lowell, Falmouth, and Woburn—the suburban towns of Greater Boston may seem unlikely locations for a large and vibrant Brazilian immigrant community.  Although Portuguese immigrants—think whalers and fishermen—first arrived in the Bay Colony hundreds of years ago, the great influx of Brazilians is a relatively new thing, beginning in the mid-1980s.

One of the many Brazilian businesses in Woburn.
One of the many Brazilian businesses in Woburn.

The Brazilian Consulate of Boston estimates that there are over 200,000 Brazilians currently living in the Greater Boston area, the second-largest Brazilian community in the United States.  “The  majority of the Brazilian population,” says Melissa McNamee, clinic coordinator for New England JFON’s  newly reopened Woburn clinic, “come from Minas Gerais—one of the poorer states in Brazil. “

Many of the immigrants are skilled laborers. Others start their own businesses, helping revitalize these former mill towns of Massachusetts. “If you walk down the main street in Woburn,” Melissa states, “you’ll find that most of the stores are owned by Brazilian immigrants.”

Melissa McNamee, clinic coordinator for New England JFON's Woburn clinic.
Melissa McNamee, clinic coordinator for the Woburn clinic.

Melissa is exceptionally suited for her volunteer position.  She speaks both Spanish and Portuguese. She has traveled extensively in Brazil and has a keen appreciation of the culture. Her connection to the country is deeply personal—two of her four children were born in Brazil.

Most significantly, Melissa is herself an immigration attorney with a successful private practice.  With ample experience in all kinds of immigration cases—although her preference is for those that reunite families—Melissa is an enormous asset to the clinic.

“I’m good at what I do,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Now I want to feel good about what I do.”

A gem of a model

The monthly clinic is hosted by Woburn United Methodist Church, and most of the new clients come from the small Brazilian Assembly of God congregation located within the church. When New England JFON held a fundraiser, this congregation provided a Brazilian buffet to encourage people to get out their checkbooks.

A sign of welcome from Woburn UMC. 

“This has always been a safe place for immigrants,” says Rev. Gary Richards, board chair of New England JFON, citing the many programs Woburn UMC has for their immigrant neighbors. “JFON is just standing on the shoulders of this church.”

Gary has spent his entire career—over 35 years—working with immigrant communities. After a stint in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, he worked as a community organizer. He focused on immigration rights while in seminary and has served urban congregations with significant immigrant communities. Like Melissa, Gary has a true affinity—a calling—for this work.

New England JFON recently reopened the Woburn clinic after a hiatus of several years, and now uses the model of their Springfield clinic in Western Massachusetts. Both operate very differently from our other JFON sites. When clients come to a clinic—either in Woburn or Springfield—they don’t meet with a JFON attorney. Instead, they have a consultation with an attorney from a local legal aid provider. In Woburn, these providers are Northeast Justice Center and Greater Boston Legal Services.

New England JFON supplies the funds to pay the salaries of these attorneys, who then take the client’s case back to their home office. Some of these cases can take years; by using this model, New England JFON is able to welcome new clients each month and help more people in need.

Rev Gary Richards, board chair for New England JFON, reopens the Woburn clinic.
Rev Gary Richards, board chair for New England JFON, helps reopen the Woburn clinic.

“We organize the clinics,” states Gary. “We work with the churches, do the fundraising, staff the volunteers, research other sites for potential new clinics, and become a voice for immigration rights within the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and also in the community.”

“This is a gem of a model,”’ he adds. “It’s efficient and organized so that it frees us to concentrate on what we do best. We open up an opportunity for people to get quality advice and not be taken advantage of. The people who walk through our doors will find attorneys who are committed to justice and serving the poor.”

With the reopening of the Woburn clinic behind him, and the Springfield clinic continuing to operate smoothly, Gary and the New England JFON board are already looking at other locations for new clinics to better meet the needs of the immigrants they are called upon to serve.

“First and foremost,” he says simply, “these are our neighbors.”


Feature photo courtesy of Marcela Garcia.



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