How to sponsor an Afghan refugee family

Refugees from Afghanistan board buses that will take them to a processing center at Dulles International Airport in Virginia after being evacuated from Kabul on August 27, 2021.
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The Biden administration has begun allowing private citizens to sponsor Afghan refugees looking to start a new life in the US. Under the Sponsor Circle Program, you and a few of your friends can pool together funds to dramatically improve the prospects for an Afghan family.

It’s a desperately needed program: The botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year left many vulnerable Afghans behind. Some are now stuck at home under the control of the Taliban, or in nearby countries to which they fled.

More than 75,000 Afghans have made it into the US through Operation Allies Welcome, and around 52,000 of them have been resettled in communities across the country. But the rest are still waiting on US military bases — safe from the Taliban but unable to get jobs, enroll their kids in school, or begin to heal and move on from the trauma they’ve experienced.

Americans can help them get resettled in a community so they can do all those things sooner.

Forming a Sponsor Circle involves bringing together at least five adults in your area and raising $2,275 for each Afghan individual you want to resettle in your community. Sponsors commit to assisting them through the first three months there, which can include locating housing, helping adults find jobs, and registering kids for school.

To be clear, by forming a Sponsor Circle, you’re not directly enabling Afghans to enter the US who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so.

Instead, you’re speeding up the process of resettling Afghans who have already entered the US through what is known as humanitarian “parole,” but who are stuck on military bases because the official resettlement infrastructure — decimated under the Trump administration — can’t get everyone settled right away.

Don’t underestimate the good speeding up resettlement can do. “Getting off a base and into a community sooner can have a profound impact on a family,” said Elizabeth Foydel, ​​the private sponsorship program director at the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project. “It’s the difference between being stuck in limbo for several months or being able to really begin your life again.”

That said, she added there’s another big development coming down the pike: The Biden administration is planning in the first half of this year to launch a fuller private sponsorship program — one that would allow Americans to sponsor an Afghan family to enter the US who otherwise would not be able to.

How to form a Sponsor Circle, in 6 steps

Afghans who’ve been stuck on military bases for months have noted how psychologically taxing it is to live life in limbo. “I stayed at Fort Pickett [in Virginia] for 91 days and some of my colleagues are still at the fort and probably will not be out until mid-February 2022,” Ahmad Zafar Shakibi told CNN. “This caused mass depression.”

Others have described the difficulty of not having enough warm clothes to go around; of being unable to access timely medical care; of feeling misunderstood by US military staff; and of enduring crushing boredom in their barracks or tents day after day. As Esrar Ahmad Saber said of his fellow refugees at a base in New Jersey, ”They just want to get out as soon as possible.”

Here’s how you can help them achieve that.

1) Form a group of five or more adults. If you’re excited about this program, you can reach out to four friends to start a conversation. (You can email them this page or even this article to get the conversation going.)

2) Have each group member complete a mandatory background check. This is a quick online process checking whether you have a criminal record.

3) Have one group member complete an online course. This gives you some tips on how to ensure your sponsor circle will be skillful and successful.

4) Fill out a welcome plan. You’ll want to devote at least a day to this since it requires you to research the resources available in your community for needs like job and language training.

5) Fundraise. You’ll need bank records or other proof showing that you’ve got $2,275 per Afghan newcomer you hope to welcome.

6) Fill out the application form. Once you’ve done steps 1-5, this will only take 10 minutes.

That’s it! If your group is motivated, you can probably complete this process over a couple of weeks of intermittent work. If your application is approved, you can welcome an Afghan family into your community — which research suggests will likely benefit not just the newcomers, but your community as a whole.

Want to sponsor Afghans for immigration to the US? Prepare now.

If you prefer to wait until the US launches its fuller private sponsorship program — the program that provides an immigration pathway so more Afghans can enter the US — it’s a good idea to start preparing now.

This will likely require more money. Canada’s highly successful private sponsorship program, for example, requires a sponsor to raise nearly $23,000 USD to bring over a family of four refugees. The US equivalent of that program could easily require money on a similar scale.

Children play with a ball as they walk with a group of media and military service members in an Afghan refugee camp on November 4, 2021 in Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

You might be thinking: Why should it fall to private citizens to fork over so much cash to resettle refugees — that’s the government’s job!

It’s a fair point. That’s why Foydel and others have been advocating for any refugees who come to the US via private sponsorship to be in addition to the number of traditional, government-assisted resettlement cases.

“That is what we are anticipating,” Foydel told me. “We think it’s important to make clear that the US government is maintaining its responsibility to resettle refugees itself.”

Biden’s official target for fiscal year 2022 is to resettle 125,000 refugees (coming from all countries, not just Afghanistan). The government is unlikely to meet that goal because refugee agencies don’t have the capacity to absorb that many newcomers. Their funding is tied to the refugee cap, and since the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions — 2020 saw a historic low of 15,000 allowed to enter — the agencies were forced to lay off staff and shutter offices. They’re now in the undesirable position of having to rebuild even as they try to serve thousands of Afghans with the scant resources they currently have.

Even if the government does manage to resettle 125,000 refugees this fiscal year, though, refugee advocates’ expectation is that private sponsorship would be able to bring in thousands more above and beyond that.

The US spent 20 years in Afghanistan trying and failing to remake the country. Now, Americans arguably have a moral responsibility to assist Afghans suffering the consequences. And considering that refugee programs may have much less support if a Republican wins the White House in 2024, now is the time to fulfill that responsibility.

As my colleague Nicole Narea has written, even if the US was right to withdraw last year, “the ensuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is the product of America’s ill-conceived and failed attempts at nation-building. The US therefore has a responsibility to ensure that Afghans facing danger or persecution as the Taliban reassert their vision of religious law can reach safety in the US or in other countries, whether or not they worked alongside American troops.”

So, if you’re thinking about forming either a Sponsor Circle or a private sponsorship, it makes sense to view it not as an act of charity, but as an act of justice. Neither will fully right the wrong that’s been done, but as Foydel told me, “They’re both incredibly impactful.”

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