State Police Chased Worcester Afghan Refugee With K9, Helicopter Over Thefts

WORCESTER, MA — On a sunny Monday in late June, a state police helicopter took off from Plymouth Municipal Airport bound for Worcester to help capture a man suspected of breaking into cars at the Worcester Recover Center hospital off Belmont Street.

During the June 24 pursuit, the state police helicopter circled Green Hill Park for about an hour starting at 3:30 p.m., one of several “overwatch” flights state police used during the pursuit, according to flight records. On the ground, troopers used a K9 to track the 20-year-old through Green Hill Park and across the park’s golf course.

“Troopers navigated wooded areas in the vicinity, periodically spotting the suspect and engaging in multiple foot pursuits,” state police said in a description of the incident.

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The pursuit ended after about six hours at 7:30 p.m. when troopers 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 9/11. His arrest highlights a range of problems some refugees face after arriving in Massachusetts, according to aid organizations, from finding housing to dealing with the trauma of growing up in a war zone.

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The man — who Worcester Patch is referring to with a pseudonym, Ahmed, due to his vulnerable status — is one of millions of Afghans around the world who have fled their home country in recent years. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the last two decades have been especially hard on children who grew up amid violence and widespread food and water shortages.

“The Afghan population has been pushed to the limit by prolonged conflict, high levels of displacement, the impact of COVID-19, natural disasters and deepening poverty,” the agency said.

According to a refugee services caseworker who knew him, Ahmed arrived in Worcester in 2022 with his mother. The relief agency found the pair an apartment, and helped them enroll in English classes and state benefits programs. Ahmed found work at the Worcester Islamic Center mosque along Mountain Street. But he also struggled with mental health problems, and began using drugs.

Ahmed is among about 600 Afghanistan refugees who relocated to Worcester following the end of the U.S. war in 2021. As much as the community and Ahmed’s family tried to help — including getting him into drug treatment — he reverted several times to drug use and homelessness.

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

Stories of refugees succeeding in the U.S. come amid major challenges. Massachusetts is in the midst of an extreme shortage of affordable housing, including in Worcester. A recent report on housing affordability found that a person working at the state’s $15 minimum wage would have to work 98 hours per week to comfortably afford a one-bedroom apartment. Worcester was also recently rated the third-worst market for renters in the nation.

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

Phillips did not know Ahmed, but said refugees who need mental health resources face even higher barriers due to language and a general shortage of therapists.

“Even if they can access mental health (after the language barriers, cultural barriers, etc.) there are then challenges of not enough therapists, not enough appropriately trained therapists to address refugee mental health and trauma, and the insurance type they have often limits the amount of therapy (or type of therapy) they can access,” Phillips said via email.

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Massachusetts is also in the midst of a crisis of new arrivals who have overwhelmed the state’s family shelter system. State officials are now trying to solve the crisis through a combination of limiting resources, and tough talk for migrants planning to come here.

Last month, Gov. Maura Healey sent a delegation to Texas to tell aid workers and migrants themselves that Massachusetts is full.

“It is essential that we get the word out that our shelters are full so that families can plan accordingly to make sure they have a safe place to go,” state emergency assistance director L. Scott Rice said in a news release after the trip.

Healey in 2023 imposed a cap of 7,500 families in the state shelter system, and there are now hundreds of families above that cap on waitlists. The state upped the ante recently, capping shelter stays to nine months. On Monday, a new rule went into effect banning migrants from sleeping at Logan Airport.

Sheltering migrants may cost the state over $900 million in fiscal 2024, and at least as much in the new fiscal year, which began on July 1. The state has also set aside money to send to resettlement agencies across the state, which help place migrants in jobs, allowing them to exit the shelter system.

Ahmed was jailed after his June 24 arrest on two counts of felony larceny and two counts of misdemeanor breaking-and-entering, according to court records. He was released June 25 after an arraignment, and has another court date scheduled in August.

State police did not directly respond to questions about the arrest, including the use of a helicopter and whether troopers inquired about Ahmed with social service organizations before the June pursuit. Police appear to have been familiar with him before the arrest, however: his full name appears on the June 7 arrest warrant troopers from the Holden barracks applied for.

“We have a broad range of capabilities that can support troopers making an arrest in a number of situations,” a state police spokesperson said via email when asked about the pursuit.

Family, friends and outreach workers had been trying to help Ahmed up until his arrest — and have continued to since, according to people who know him.

On Monday afternoon, Ahmed’s regular camping spot in Green Hill Park appeared to have been abandoned — now just a crumpled comforter draped across a bush with food wrappers, tuna cans and molding orange peels nearby. Following the arrest, it’s unclear if he went home to live with his mother, went to stay at a homeless shelter or fled to a campsite deeper in the woods somewhere in Worcester.

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