Columnist Razvan Sibii: A new way to sponsor a refugee

By RAZVAN SIBII

Published: 08-14-2023 4:00 PM

Last month, I wrote about a new immigration program, called the Welcome Corps, which allows regular Americans to sponsor the relocation of refugees into their neighborhoods (https://shorturl.at/hvGZ5). The program, which the Biden administration calls “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in 40 years,” has just started matching refugees with “sponsorship circles” — five or more people willing to help the newcomers with all their day-to-day concerns (such as housing, jobs, medical care, schooling, access to food, and legal paperwork).

According to the State Department, hundreds of thousands of Americans have signed up so far to work with Welcome Corps and the pilot programs that preceded it. Many of them, though by no means all, have ties to religious, diasporic or veterans groups, and some are former refugees themselves.

Such is the case of EdwigeFotso, who, 17 years ago, came to America as a refugee from Cameroon. She had left her first child back home, and was pregnant with her second. The people who welcomed her at the airport took her straight to the hospital where she delivered her daughter. Mother and newborn spent the next couple of months in a shelter, until a local church found her housing. She got a job as soon as her work authorization arrived, and eventually also got a master’s degree. She also started paying it forward, volunteering alongside members of her Christian congregation to help refugee families settle in or around Boston, where she now lives.

Fotso’s faith group was an early applicant to the Welcome Corps, having started the process in February, a few days after Welcome Corps officially kicked off. After undertaking the necessary online training and convincing the State Department people that they are legit and ready to take on this responsibility, they were matched with a refugee. They are now waiting to be told when to welcome the newcomer at the airport.

“I’m doing this because of my faith,” Fotso told me recently in a Zoom interview. “I want to share the love of God with my fellow human beings. I feel like it’s a blessing. It’s a privilege to be able to lend a hand to somebody else that’s starting anew. They left their family behind. They’ve been through a lot. Helping them to get into this country, making sure they’re successful — that’s really a privilege.”

While religious imperatives were a major motivation for Fotso and her group to sponsor a refugee, they were told in no uncertain terms by the government that this is not meant to be a proselytising effort.

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“Each of the five members of the group has to sign a commitment form to say that they’re going to help this person for 90 days. They’re not going to try to change the person’s faith, they’re not going to try to convert them. They’re going to let them have freedom of religion, sexual orientation, whatever. They’ll be free. And after the 90 days, they can decide to go out of state. They’re not bound to stay with you after the 90-day period. You have to be okay with that,” she said.

The Welcome Corps program is still in its early stages, and the State Department, helped by people like Fotso, is trying to put out the word to as many communities as possible. As of last month, they’ve started focusing on a community with tremendous representation in western Massachusetts: college campuses.

Students, faculty and staff can form five-person sponsorship groups who commit to helping an incoming refugee navigate college life for at least one year. The sponsors will be asked to secure funding to cover the student’s expenses (tuition, room and board, health insurance, etc.). If the college is not already a declared partner of Welcome Corps (as are Berkshire Community College, Mount Holyoke College and the University of Massachusetts Boston), the sponsors also will have to get the school administration on board with the idea. You can find step-by-step guides to getting this started here: welcomecorps.org/campus.

With the exception of the Trump years, the U.S. was resettling lots of refugees (by comparison with most other countries) even before the Welcome Corps program opened the doors to private sponsorship. The real gain here, with this new program, is the involvement of everyday Americans, as opposed to resettlement agencies, in helping people start a new life in this country.

What’s more, this endeavor is as bipartisan as it gets in this age of political polarization. Welcome.US, the wider refugee-resettlement initiative that serves as a framework for the Welcome Corps, counts among its honorary co-chairs all former presidents except one (guess who). And the everyday Americans who have so far volunteered to care for refugees in their communities hail from every corner of the country, blue states and red states alike.

“We find that people want to be helpers and that the American values of humanitarian and compassion, despite all of the national politics, still run really deep,” Kit Taintor, vice-president of policy and practice at Welcome.US, told me.

“Whether we’re talking about communities in western Massachusetts or communities in Utah, the common thread that we see when we talk to sponsors is that they want to be of service. They see an opportunity to directly affect somebody’s life. You read the news, oftentimes, and the news is horrible, and you’re not sure how to help. And this is an example where the opportunity to help is relatively straightforward,” Taintor said.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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