(NEWS CENTER) — We've all seen the heartbreaking stories of refugees from Syria: entire families forced to leave their homes – and nearly everything they own – behind with the hope of finding a safe place to live away from the fighting.
Some of them end up here in Maine, choosing to start all over again. And that means not only finding a new place to live but furnishing it, as well.
That's where a local organization called "Furniture Friends" comes in, helping refugees and others build new homes and new lives.
"Because of the war, the crisis over there, we couldn't stay any longer," Yassin explains. His wife and four young kids arrived in Maine from Syria in November, and have slept on the floor ever since. Until now.
Westbrook-based Furniture Friends collects donated furniture and distributes to people in need changed everything.
Volunteers on Wednesday packed up the Furniture Friends moving van with beds and dressers and headed for Yassin’s Westbrook apartment.
Once there, five student volunteers from Greeley High School were given their instructions: "If you need to take a break, just say 'Hey, let's set it down for a second.' There's no need to rush and hurt yourself."
And the heavy lifting begins. “OK, slide it out that way, I can get it," one student says to one another as they begin to move heavy dressers and mattresses off of the truck.
For their hard work, the students collect community service hours needed to graduate in Maine.
They also collect stories from the people they are helping; learning what they’ve gone through and how they came to need help with furniture.
And they see, hoisting sometimes heavy furniture up several stairways, how what they are doing is making a house a home.
Yassin beams when he peers into his sons’ room. Just that morning, there was nothing more than blankets on the floor. Now, there are twin beds and a bureau. "Yes, this room here is my two boys, Mustafa and Moaz, and they're going to be sleeping in this room. Very nice."
"I think those of us who are privileged take for granted what it means to have a bed to sleep on or a dining table to eat our meals from," said Jenn McAdoo.
McAdoo doesn't just run Furniture Friends, she rolls up her sleeves and helps to physically move the furniture. And these days, that's a lot of moves.
“Three years ago we served about 180 families," she said. "Two years ago we served 320 families. Last year, we served we served over 430 families."
Furniture Friends assists families with all kinds of needs. Some have physical or mental disabilities, and others, like Eric Wabulo, who has recently arrived from Uganda where most of his family was murdered, just need some support.
"I came to the U.S. because there are a lot of problems in my country,” Wabulo explains. “You know, there is a lot of problem in Africa. People get killed every time, there's no safe place for us."
Eric who was a singer in Uganda and is now volunteering at Furniture Friends – a group he now calls "family." And on Wednesday, he was also getting furniture: a bed, kitchen table and chairs. Until now, his apartment was bare.
"Guys I am going to be happy with my new home today," he said. "I'm going to sleep very well today."
McAdoo said Furniture Friends runs on limited funds. Where it blossoms, she says, is volunteers and donations. And one look at the five Greeley students at the end of their shift, odds are good they’ll be back to do more volunteering.
"They were just really nice people. I was glad to help them out. It was just nice to meet them, too" one student said. Another added, “Honestly, just meeting them, meeting who we were giving the furniture to – just like where they're from, like their story, it was really interesting and really fun to help out."
Before setting the students free, Jenn McAdoo thanked them. "You guys don't realize the value of the service that you provide. I mean, yeah, the furniture is important, but you're really making a difference in connecting to the people that we're delivering to, to make them feel valued and valuable."
And, as Yassin’s family prepared to spend their first night in real beds, he shared, "We are, right now, more comfortable, more relaxed, happier, my kids are happier, every time they sleep on those mattresses thank you and of course, thank you, Fiends Furnitures."
Those high school students also spent part of their day picking "up" furniture that was donated in South Portland.
Furniture Friends told us they receive so many donations that they will be moving into a larger warehouse in Westbrook this spring.
If you're interested in volunteering or donating furniture, contact Furniture Friends either through their website www.furniturefriends.org or call them: (207) 210-3140.