Columnist Razvan Sibii: Bring a refugee to western Mass.

By RAZVAN SIBII

Published: 07-17-2023 6:00 PM

Surprisingly enough, since establishing its current refugee resettlement program in 1980, the U.S. government has not made it easy for regular citizens to get involved in helping newcomers settle into their new American lives. Usually, after the state authorities approved a refugee’s move to America, they handed them over to one of nine non-profit organizations who did the actual resettling: placing the refugee in a town somewhere, finding them temporary housing, helping them get a job, enrolling their kids in school, and so on. Everyday people who really wanted to help could volunteer with these organizations and could donate money and some goods, but their role was always peripheral.

As of January of this year, that is no longer true: through the newly created Welcome Corps, anyone can sponsor the relocation of a refugee in their town. There’s some training involved and some money, but mostly it’s about you finding another four individuals willing to put in some time, effort and a whole lot of goodwill to give a refugee a second chance at life.

The Welcome Corps is best thought of as a legal and logistical framework that allows ordinary Americans to take the lead in supporting refugees, with the government playing a backup role, rather than the other way around. This should accomplish two long-term goals: getting more Americans involved in helping others, and bringing more refugees to a wider variety of American towns than has been the case for the past 40 years.

If you’re interested in sponsoring a refugee, you should know that doing so does not require you to have any special skills, to be rich, or to make a lifetime commitment to the individual or family whom you are helping sponsor. When you participate in this program, you commit to acting as a resource for a refugee for 90 days; after that, you can sponsor another person, continue helping the same individual, or take a break. As far as money is concerned, before they approve you, the government will ask you to prove that your group either has or can fundraise $2,375 per sponsored individual.

The first thing to do is check out the Welcome Corps’ website which is full of step-by-step guides, tip sheets, explanations and testimonials: WelcomeCorps.org.

If you like what you see and you are ready to do this, you’ll need to find at least four other people willing to help. (The State Department, which runs the Welcome Corps, has determined that five is the magic number for a sponsorship team, as that allows for an effective distribution of responsibilities). The government’s people suggest you put out the word to your friends, work buddies, neighbors, faith group, diaspora group, book club, Lions Club, Boy/Girl Scout troop, alumni list, veteran group, sports team, or social media groups. All sponsors must be citizens or permanent residents of the U.S.

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When you’ve formed a group, you will all watch an information video on the Welcome Corps website. Then, if everyone’s still on board, the members must pass a background check. More online training follows, and you will get help filling out an official application for sponsorship. Once that’s approved, you will develop a “Welcome Plan” that ensures that, on arrival, the refugee’s immediate needs are taken care of. Among the most important tasks that your group must take care of are:

■Finding temporary housing with functioning utilities. When the newcomer gets their Social Security card (which you’ll also help them with), they can get longer-term accommodations.

■Furnishing their initial apartment with necessary items (for example, beds, dressers, cribs, chairs, tables, linen, cutlery, toiletries, cleaning supplies), and stocking the pantry and fridge with culturally appropriate food for the first week.

■Connecting them to health care providers and health care programs.

■Helping them get a job.

■Getting kids enrolled in school.

■Helping them access language resources and connect to diaspora communities.

■Helping them with transportation in the short term, and driving lessons and car purchasing in the longer term.

When your group is ready, the State Department will match you with an individual or a family who have already been screened by the United Nations and American refugee authorities and have been approved for resettlement. A sponsor group whose application is accepted can expect to pick up one or more refugees from the airport within two months.

The first refugees to come to America through the Welcome Corps process were a Congolese family — grandmother, two daughters and two granddaughters. They arrived in Worthington, Minnesota (population 13,947, about the size of Belchertown) on June 20. The State Department hopes that they will be joined by 5,000 other refugees by the end of the year, and that at least 10,000 Americans will have been involved in helping these families pursue their own version of the American Dream.

I will write again about the Welcome Corps because I believe it has a huge potential to impact a lot of lives — American and soon-to-be American. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about the program, email me and I will help you get answers.

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.]]>