Over 110,000 Ukrainians have come to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine, a unique American sponsorship program that President Biden announced in April. With 14 million Ukrainians who have fled their homes tipping the number of people displaced by war and violence to over 100 million globally, this program is desperately needed.
Now the US government is offering a similar opportunity to refugees around the world through a new initiative called the Welcome Corps, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.” It “enables Americans to directly support refugees and show the best of American hospitality and generosity,” Blinken said. They can do this by forming private sponsorship groups in order to bring refugees from war-torn places to the United States to “build new lives.”
The organization I lead, RefugePoint, helped to build this program. But, more important, I know from experience what sponsoring a refugee means — for the refugee and the sponsor — and my hope is that Americans across the country will sponsor refugees seeking safety.
From 2000 to 2001, I worked in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp to help a group of orphaned children known as the Sudanese Lost Boys resettle to the United States. A ″60 Minutes” episode told the story of their exodus from South Sudan, how they were separated from their parents, and how they survived bombs, bullets, wild animal attacks, and other dangers.
I was a cultural orientation instructor and told them what to expect when they arrived in America. Their resilience and fortitude seemed otherworldly to me, but I also knew that they would need a lot of help navigating the United States. I explained that they’d have professional agency staff on hand when they arrived, but I also assured them that if they needed extra help, they could call my parents, who lived outside of Boston.
A teenager named Mangok resettled to Boston, contacted my parents, and soon became part of the family. He referred to them as mom and dad. Mangok was a regular at Thanksgiving dinners and our Passover table and came to my wedding. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire and went on to get a master’s degree at Brandeis University.
My parents, along with many others, invested themselves fully in the lives of these war orphans. It was a daily affair from the start: finding winter clothes; helping them get jobs; teaching them the ins and outs of renting apartments and getting around; supporting their educational pursuits, and troubleshooting many challenges. Our lives were transformed by these relationships.
Now Americans across our country have an opportunity to sponsor refugees like Mangok. What my family and other volunteers did was similar to what the Welcome Corps sponsorship groups will undertake to do. Sponsors go through background checks and have to fill out a welcome plan of action that includes arranging housing, picking up the newcomers at the airport, helping kids access school, signing them up for the relevant benefits, raising $2,275 per individual in the family, and taking overall responsibility for their integration.
Sponsorship groups require at least five people and will have support, training, and guidance from professional agencies that help refugees. There will probably be a fund established to help defray costs. Sponsored refugees go through the same strict vetting as other refugees before arrival and can apply for citizenship after five years.
At its heart, I believe America is a land of welcome. The beauty of this new program is that it gives Americans the opportunity to further this fundamental national moral value. Just like the Lost Boys, war has shattered the homelands of other refugees. With the support of everyday Americans, they will benefit from this program. Now, by forming a sponsorship group, anyone can play a role in protecting and saving a life. I can assure you that if you do, you’ll give new meaning to your own life too.
Sasha Chanoff is CEO and founder of RefugePoint and coauthor of “From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions.”