¿Oíste? Cofounder Giovanna Negretti Thinks Boston Should Welcome Syrian Refugees

She's in Europe studying their journeys firsthand, and says, 'The Boston that I know would absolutely welcome these people.'


A woman with her daughters in Slovenia. / Photo courtesy Giovanna Negretti

“I remember when Tom Menino started the Office of New Bostonians, because of the wave of immigrants,” Giovanna Negretti said to me Wednesday afternoon—Wednesday night for her in Slovenia. “This should be no different. We can absorb people coming in, welcome them, to give them some help and some hope. Of course Boston can do this.”

Negretti, a Puerto Rican native who cofounded the Hispanic advocacy organization ¿Oíste? during her nearly 20 years in Boston, was talking about Syrian refugees, as nearly everybody seems to be these days. But, unlike most, she was doing so after two days among them. She is on a fact-finding mission this week, learning on the ground about dangers to women and families along the difficult trek from Syria to Germany.

“I’m seeing their faces,” Negretti says. “I saw a woman desperately looking for her child, she couldn’t find her anywhere. As a mother, I can’t imagine how bad a situation would have to be to put my family through this.”

She is there to learn how bad “this” is, particularly for women. Whereas the bulk of refugees have previously been young men, Negretti says, there are now large numbers of women, children, and elderly as the men who risked the journey first are sending for their families to follow. The worst part of the journey, Negretti says, is the trek from Turkey to Greece—a route refugees are forced to take, she says, because Bulgarian police are said to commit atrocities along the more direct route through that country.

So, refugees pile 100 at a time into boats run by smugglers pocketing some $9 million a day, Negretti says. And at every stop along the way—including the ones she visited this week—the women are vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

She was invited on this trip—well before the ISIS attack in Paris—by the Nobel Women’s Initiative; Negretti, who has lived in Jordan for the past several years, became regional director earlier this year for human rights organization American Friends Service Committee. She had been to Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia when I spoke with her, and was heading to Germany next.

Negretti is well aware of the sudden controversy over Syrian refugees here in the U.S., and in Massachusetts specifically. Earlier this week, Governor Charlie Baker said the state would not take in Syrian refugees pending more guidance from the federal government. Mayor Marty Walsh stood by the governor (until he didn’t).

Negretti concedes that there might be a few terrorists, or potential terrorists, among the unprecedented waves of people flooding out of Syria—the stopover countries she is touring share that concern, she says. “I understand the fear,” she says.

But there are easier ways for terrorists to get into the U.S. than the refugee process, Negretti says, and she urges people to empathize with people who have been displaced by a combination of the repressive Assad regime, brutal ISIS presence, and intense bombardment by the U.S. and others, which has intensified since last Friday’s attack in Paris.

“They have no other option,” Negretti says. “The people who are leaving Syria—a great number of them are middle-class, well educated. They are able to work, they have degrees. We met several people who are fluent in English.”

In other words, she says, not so different from the immigrants she worked with in Boston (when Boston magazine named her one of “40 Bostonians to Watch” and “100 Most Powerful Women in Boston.”). Those immigrants, Negretti argues, have been a boon to Boston, Somerville, and everywhere else in the region that has accepted them.

She has no doubt that it would be the same for the Syrians she has been meeting this week. “The Boston that I know would absolutely welcome these people,” she says.