SAN DIEGO– When nearly 80,000 Afghans arrived in the United States, refugee resettlement agencies were quickly overwhelmed, still struggling to rehire staff and reopen offices after being gutted as the Trump administration slashed the number of refugee admissions at a record high.
So the US State Department, in conjunction with humanitarian organizations, turned to ordinary Americans to fill the void. Neighbours, co-workers, faith groups and friends have come together in “sponsorship circles” to help Afghans settle into their communities.
They raised funds and found houses to rent for new arrivals, enrolled their children in schools, taught them how to open bank accounts and located the nearest mosques and shops selling halal meat.
Since the withdrawal of the US military from Kabul last year, the Sponsorship Circle program for Afghans has helped more than 600 Afghans restart their lives. When Russia invaded Ukraine, a similar effort was made for the Ukrainians.
Now the Biden administration is preparing to turn the experiment into a private sponsorship program for refugees admitted under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and is asking organizations to partner with it to launch a pilot program. by the end of 2022.
The move comes amid mounting pressure on President Joe Biden, who pledged in a 2021 executive order to increase opportunities for Americans to resettle refugees and restore the United States as the world’s safe haven. The Trump administration has decimated the refugee program, which traditionally tasks nine resettlement agencies with placing refugees in communities.
Experts say the private sponsorship model could transform how America resettles refugees and ensure a door remains open no matter who is elected.
“I think there’s a real revolution going on right now that’s happening in terms of American communities and communities around the world raising their hands and saying, ‘We want to bring in refugees,'” Sasha Chanoff said, Founder and CEO of RefugePoint. , a Boston-based nonprofit that helped launch the effort.
It comes as the number of people forced to flee their homes topped 100 million this year, the first time on record, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The pilot program will incorporate lessons learned from the Sponsor Circle program for Afghans, which was developed as an emergency measure to expedite the resettlement of Afghans, many of whom are languishing on US bases. But the pilot program will be different because it is intended to be “an enduring part of US refugee resettlement,” a US State Department spokesperson said in an email to The Associated Press.
The pilot program will connect regular Americans with refugees overseas who have already been approved for admission to the United States, the spokesperson said. Later, the plan will allow Americans to identify a refugee overseas and apply for resettlement.
Canada has used private sponsorship for decades to augment its government agenda.
Chanoff said the new model should also come on top of the US government’s traditional refugee program, which only admitted about 15% of the 125,000 Biden cap set for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. . The Biden administration has been slow to build staff and overcome the huge backlog, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say.
Those figures exclude the roughly 180,000 Afghans and Ukrainians who were mostly admitted on humanitarian parole, a temporary legal option that aimed to get them in faster but left them with less government support.
Ordinary Americans have helped fill that need, Afghan families say.
As part of the sponsorship circle program for Afghans, participants underwent background checks, received training and developed a three-month plan. Each group was to collect at least $2,275 for each resettled person, the same allowance the US government gives to agencies for each refugee.
Mohammad Walizada, who fled Kabul with his family, said five days after being connected in a sponsorship circle with Four Rivers Church in New Hampshire, his family moved into a furnished house in Epping, a town in approximately 7,000 inhabitants.
Meanwhile, Afghan friends and relatives have spent months on US bases waiting to be placed by a resettlement agency, he said. Many ended up in California, staying in hotels due to a lack of affordable housing and with only three months of government assistance.
He said his sponsorship circle gave his family 10 months rent and a car, and someone still watches over him, his wife and six children on a daily basis. Each circle receives a mentor who coaches them from WelcomeNST, an organization created in 2021 to help Americans resettle Afghans and now Ukrainians. The organization offers a Slack channel for circles and partners of the resettlement agency, HIAS, which connects them to social workers when needed.
The New Hampshire team has more than 60 members helping people like Walizada.
“I feel like I have a lot of family here now,” Walizada said.
True, ordinary Americans have always helped resettle refugees, but not on this scale since the US Refugee Act of 1980 created the official program, experts say.
A similar outpouring of goodwill occurred when the Biden administration launched Uniting for Ukraine, which allows Ukrainians to flee war to the United States for two years with a private sponsor. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the program, received more than 117,000 applications through August.
Hundreds of Americans have formed teams to resettle Ukrainians, including in Wyoming – the only state that has never authorized an official refugee resettlement program.
“We just wanted to be able to do something and we have such a great community here,” said Darren Adwalpalker, pastor of Highland Park Community Church in Casper, who formed a group that sponsored three Ukrainians who arrived in the town in 60 000 inhabitants in June. .
Adwalpalker has received support from the humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse.
“Without private sponsorship, this would not have been possible for many of these communities who have enormous resources and the goodwill to do so,” said Krista Kartson, who runs its refugee programs.
With $3,000, the pastor said his group provided an apartment for six months for the only Ukrainian who remained in Casper. Just about everything else – grocery gift cards, furniture – was donated.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that the whole idea of a resettlement office isn’t that important” if there are people on the ground willing to help, Adwalpalker said. .
“We have dentists working on their teeth. We have doctors who see them. We have lawyers who help them with their immigration documents.
Rudi Berkelhamer, a retired biology professor, wanted to help because his grandparents fled attacks on Jews in the early 20th century in what is now Ukraine.
She was connected to a circle of sponsors in Irvine, Calif., through HIAS, which requires a six-month commitment. Circle members had a week to get to know each other and come up with a plan before being matched with an Afghan family – a young couple and their 3-year-old son – in February.
Berkelhamer moved furniture to the family home and outfitted it with computers and cell phones. Others got them bus passes.
The father, a mechanical engineer who worked with the US Army in Afghanistan, found work in a parachute factory. The mother takes English lessons and their son attends kindergarten.
Berkelhamer sees the family every two weeks. This summer, she went to a museum with the mother and another member of the circle to paint parasols and have lunch. She plans to continue helping.
“It’s not just the necessities; it’s doing those kinds of things that make it so meaningful,” she said.
Taxine reported from Orange County, California.