RefugePoint, the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans, and Private Sponsorship

Departure Day

After feeling something brush my thigh, I looked down to find a young boy’s big, brown eyes staring intently into mine. I could see his lips moving, and heard a jumble of words tumble out of his mouth, but my brain couldn’t make any sense of them, based on the few words of Kiswahili I know. Luckily, his father was standing next to him, and offered a translation, “He wants to know if you’re coming with us.” 

We were standing at the only check-in counter in Nampula, Mozambique’s small, provincial airport. The young boy and his family were about to embark on what everyone hoped would be the last leg of a journey his parents started years before he was born. This journey began when they crossed Lake Tanganyika to escape the ongoing violence and unrest that forced them to flee their home in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The safety and security they sought in a refugee camp outside of Nampula, however, where the young boy and his siblings were all born, remained elusive. Their ongoing protection concerns led a U.S. immigration officer to approve the family’s case for resettlement. Today, they were on their way to the United States, where they hoped they’d finally find the safety and security they sought when fleeing DRC all those years ago. I was working as a Resettlement Expert at the UNHCR sub-office in Nampula at the time. One of my responsibilities–one of my favorites, to be honest–was to accompany departing families to the airport to ensure they got off okay. 

After a brief chuckle, I knelt down so I could look the young boy in the eyes. Although airport departures were a favorite of mine, they were always emotional. It usually happened at check-in, when the reality of everything that led up to that point came to a head–this family was really leaving. Today was no different. There it was, like clockwork, a tsunami of emotion threatening to drown my composure. I managed to ward off the flood by swallowing hard, and forcing a smile. After asking the boy’s father to translate for me, I replied, “No sweetie, I wish I could go with you. But don’t worry, you’ll be okay. There’ll be other people to help you along the way.” After managing another forced smile, what I hoped was a reassuring nod, and a double-eye wink, I had barely finished my last sentence before I stood up abruptly and looked away, trying discreetly to wipe the tears from my eyes. I sent a silent prayer out into the universe at that moment, “Please, let them be okay. Please, keep them safe and let them end up in a place where they find good jobs, good schools, and good people. And, please, please, please just let them find people who are gonna be nice to them.”

An hour and a half or so later, together with the hundred or so refugees who had made the trip from the camp to see the family off, I stood there on the terminal’s back balcony, watching their plane ascend into the sky while repeating the same silent prayer, “….please, please, please, just let them find people who are gonna be nice to them.” 

The truth is, however, that I didn’t know exactly what awaited this family in the United States. I knew there’d be at least a caseworker from their resettlement agency, and possibly some volunteers. But would the support be enough to ensure they knew where to buy cassava? Or, what to do when they were running late to pick up one of their kids from school? Or, how to advocate for themselves if they were stopped by a police officer? Although I’m an optimist and I always hope for the best, I worried about the reality they’d find in the United States. Would they be left to figure things out mostly on their own, with minimal assistance from a well-meaning but overstretched case manager, juggling the needs of too many families? I never knew for sure.

U.S. Refugee Resettlement

My only experience with a U.S. Resettlement Agency was limited to a short stint as a volunteer a handful of years earlier, while living in Vermont. Together with four others, our group was tasked with helping to support a family, who had recently resettled to the United States from a refugee camp in Kenya. Although I never met the family’s caseworker, we communicated by phone or by email to keep abreast of the family’s appointments, for which our group had committed to providing transportation, in addition to more general support. 

Although we were all well-intentioned, our group of five quickly became a team of two, due to the greater flexibility of my own and another woman’s schedules. Between the two of us, we took turns taking the family to doctor’s appointments, the beach, to various social events, and to the grocery store. We encouraged them to wear boots, thick coats, socks, sweaters, and hats in the winter time, and warned them of the danger (to their bank account) of keeping their thermostat set to 80+ degrees, no matter how good it felt to walk around the house in short sleeves and bare feet. We cooked together, we helped them open bank accounts, get non-driver State IDs, we taught them how to write checks, and how to balance their checkbook. We helped them understand why it was necessary (and very normal in America) for both parents to work and contribute money to their family’s household expenses each month, instead of sending an entire paycheck to their relatives still living in the refugee camp. We introduced them to neighbors, spoke with their landlord when a few minor issues arose, and I’d like to think we helped both the family and the members of their community to understand each other better. Although we were “only” volunteers, I believe we played a critical role in helping the family to integrate into their new community and adjust to life in America.

Private Sponsorship in the USA

Because of these experiences, my personal excitement meter registered “off the charts” when I heard that after nearly 30 years since the Clinton Administration allowed Reagan’s Private Sector Initiative (PSI) to expire–the only official, government-sanctioned private sponsorship program in the United States since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980–the U.S. was not only contemplating private sponsorship again, it was actively planning to launch a pilot in 2022. 

Although resettlement is a responsibility shared by nearly 30 countries throughout the world, the United States has always led the world in refugee admissions–by a very wide margin–through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). That is, until the Trump Administration’s budget cuts forced the dismantling of much of the program’s infrastructure. As a result, between 2016 and 2021, the U.S. went from accepting nearly 85,000 refugees a year to an all-time low of just over 11,000. To be fair, the pandemic also played a role in reduced refugee admissions, which affected resettlement countries throughout the world. During that same period, Canadian admissions fell from around 45,000 to just over 5,000 refugees annually. With more than 80 million displaced people throughout the world, less than 1% of those in need are able to access resettlement in any given year. The loss of so many resettlement opportunities reverberated throughout the world and neither a single country, nor the world collectively, was able to make up for the international community’s reduced capacity to respond to the ongoing crisis.

A young Afghan evacuee tries on a pair of new winter boots at Fort McCoy. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin John, 302d Maneuver Enhancement Brigade PAO NCOIC.

The Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans

By late August of 2021, still recovering, the USRAP was hit with the sudden and unexpected arrival of tens of thousands of Afghans via US evacuation flights after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. With the USRAP struggling to absorb the overwhelming influx, the U.S. Government needed alternative solutions to create additional capacity.

The Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans (SCP) is one of these solutions. Launched as an emergency response initiative to add capacity to the USRAP’s overstretched resettlement system, the State Department officially announced the new program on October 25th, 2021, establishing one of the most significant innovations in refugee resettlement in recent US history. Led by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and Community Sponsorship Hub (CSH), the Sponsor Circle Program brings together the collaborative expertise of a coalition of partners, which includes RefugePoint, among others. 

While the program was originally designed to support Afghans, the Sponsor Circle Program has recently opened for American citizens to welcome Ukrainians, due to its success in supporting Afghan newcomers. With the Biden Administration’s commitment to welcoming up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainians through Uniting for Ukraine, the Sponsor Circle Program offers Americans interested in sponsorship the guidance, support, and other resources they need. 

In the past eight months, RefugePoint’s Sponsorship Team has supported the resettlement of nearly 600 Afghans from four different Safe Havens into communities of welcome and support in nearly 30 states throughout the country. Vetted and certified volunteer groups of at least five individuals, called Sponsor Circles, support these families for a minimum of 90 days as they adjust to their new homes and lives in the United States. In effect, they serve as a mini “private” resettlement agency, taking on the responsibility of providing all the same services and support that a resettlement agency would. The program model is based on Canada’s successful “Group of Five” Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program, the most well-known and oft-cited private sponsorship program in the world–it’s been welcoming refugees since the late 1970s. In recent years, particularly following the refugee crisis in Syria, even more countries have adopted private sponsorship programs to welcome refugees, including Germany, Australia, the UK, Spain, Italy, and Argentina. Even Canada implemented an additional private sponsorship program, as well. 

Why Private Sponsorship?

One of the main benefits of private sponsorship is that it operates outside of the traditional resettlement system, which is governed by the politics (and budget approval) of whichever administration holds power. Until the United States is able to rebuild its resettlement infrastructure, assuming the Biden Administration is able to uphold its commitment to support its expansion, private sponsorship will help provide additional opportunities to the millions of refugees for whom resettlement remains the only viable durable solution. Plus, because it’s privately funded, there’s little risk of losing the added capacity to future administrations, which may not support resettlement. Launching a private sponsorship program now will guarantee the United States is able to continue to ensure that refugees are able to access safety and security, so they can rebuild their lives, and become productive, contributing members of society again. Plus, the USA can take the lessons learned from the Sponsor Circle Program and apply them to the policy and practical considerations needed to create a strong, viable, robust private sponsorship program that will benefit not only refugees, but also the American people, and the USRAP.

Of course, the success of any private sponsorship program is heavily dependent upon the willingness of everyday Americans to step up and serve as sponsors. By tapping into the vast human resources we have in the United States, as well as the goodwill and generosity of the American people, the United States can establish itself as a leader in both traditional resettlement and private sponsorship. 

On a personal note, I’ve had the honor of speaking with a few members of Sponsor Circles, which have supported several of the Afghan families RefugePoint helped resettle. While no one can guarantee the type of experience someone will have, I was blown away by the openness, pureness of heart, generosity, and simple desire to help that I witnessed. I also appreciate the certainty of knowing that we’ve placed people into a situation that gives them the best chance of receiving the support they need to succeed. We’ve all heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Cliche as it may be, I think that idea also applies to helping someone adjust to life in a new country and culture. Although I’m not sure I’ll ever know what happened to that little boy and his family, I’ll always hope they ended up finding a community of people to support them who are as kind, generous, and welcoming as I know many of the folks who come together to form Sponsor Circles are.