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Waiting for Welcome

Last year, the Biden administration launched a national refugee sponsorship program modeled after a resettlement agency’s in New Haven—how will it transform across the U.S.?

Yazan (far right) and his family

Last December, Yazan Al Doumani received an email he’d been waiting thirteen years for. 

He was at an office desk in West Hartford during what had been an unassuming workday at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS). But that afternoon, an office director sent a staff-wide message announcing the launch of a public initiative that could allow Yazan to see his family for the first time in years. 

Yazan immediately opened the homepage of the Welcome Corps, a national program that recently launched in January 2023. It allows ordinary US citizens to voluntarily sponsor refugee families and assist them toward self-sufficiency in the States. Have you watched the news unfolding around the world, read an earlier version of the website, and wished there was something you could do? Yazan thought of his mother Abir, his brothers, Ghaith and Yaman, and his sister, Joudi. The four are still currently 5,633 miles away in Jordan, where they have been since their displacement at the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian civil war. 

“I had a feeling inside that—oh my god—my family could actually come soon to [this] country and I can reunite with them here,” Yazan would later tell me. He began his application to become a Welcome Corps sponsor. He began to hope for the best. 

Yazan is 22 years old, an assistant of IRIS’ Housing & Donations team, and a student at Central Connecticut State. He has a penchant for Premier League soccer and—“it’s gonna sound weird,” he warned me—teeth. He’s studying pre-dentistry, and tells me that tooth enamel is stronger than rocks. 

Yazan was born in the U.S., but his family moved to Syria soon after, where they lived until the beginning of the war. He was 8 when he moved back to the States as a U.S. citizen. Yazan was joined only by his father, Mohamed, whose visa had been approved by the Department of State. Meanwhile, the visa applications of Yazan’s mother, brothers, and sister had all been denied.

In 2011, the year Yazan’s family was separated, Mohamed filed their family’s claims with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). If approved, the rest of the family could join them by UNHCR referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), first instituted by the Refugee Act of 1980. In the meantime, both sides of the family had to build something of a new life—living, working, waiting for reunion. Yazan calls his mother and siblings on Facetime almost daily, but it’s been two years since he last saw them when he visited Jordan. Thirteen years have passed since they were separated, with no update on the status of their refugee claims.

As a Welcome Corps sponsor, Yazan can provide what may become a crucial means for diasporic communities across the U.S. to reunite with their loved ones. As of this year, about six hundred fifty-four thousand Syrians in Jordan are officially registered as refugees with the UNHCR, and over one-third of them have been separated from their families. This statistic still doesn’t account for the 1.3 million displaced Syrians in Jordan who either haven’t registered for legal refugee status or still await approval. 

With a grassroots approach towards refugee resettlement in the U.S., the Welcome Corps pushes the boundaries of a field long dominated by professional resettlement agencies and mostly white, faith-based service organizations. Conventionally, these agencies sponsored families approved by the UNHCR and referred to the USRAP; however, these groups had little say in who they sponsored. When the Welcome Corps first launched, it paired refugees and sponsor groups the same way. Nearly a year later, in December 2023, the Welcome Corps opened a means of sponsorship never before seen in the US. It allowed sponsors to identify specific refugees they wanted to resettle, so long as they have already been registered as a refugee or asylum seeker by the UNHCR or the government of the country they’re currently located in. 

Through the Welcome Corps, Yazan and his family may finally have the chance to be together soon, and for good. 

The Biden administration describes the Welcome Corps as an effort to expand the U.S.’ capacity to resettle refugee families and modernize current refugee resettlement programs. It launched the Welcome Corps amid a series of international crises, including the fall of Kabul in 2021 and the escalation of conflict between Ukraine and Russia in 2022. The program is also a response to historically low refugee admissions ceilings during Donald Trump’s presidency, which saw an 86 percent drop in U.S. refugee admissions over the course of his term. 

Yazan (far left) and his siblings as children

To expand and update the U.S.’ refugee resettlement capacity, the Biden administration turned to a resettlement model known as community co-sponsorship, where an official agency approves and trains community organizations to sponsor refugees on its behalf. The administration looked to New Haven—where the nation’s leading example of the co-sponsorship model grew from the offices of IRIS, a nonprofit nestled in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood. 

“For many, many years, there was an assumption that [refugee resettlement] is a really specialized technical work that requires a lot of experienced case managers and it cannot be done by a ragtag group of volunteers,” Chris George, former Executive Director of IRIS, told me over the phone. “Well, you’re wrong.” 

George, who directed IRIS for eighteen years, saw community co-sponsorship as his most important project at the agency. He was spurred by the need to assist growing populations of displaced people, along with the heightened visibility of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015—what the UNHCR still calls the largest refugee crisis in the world. George and other IRIS leaders then established their own community co-sponsorship program, pushing a number of public information sessions to recruit what would eventually grow a state-wide network of over fifty co-sponsorship groups. 

Historically, refugee resettlement has operated through a case management model, in which a case manager or social worker is assigned to a refugee family to provide assistance. This limits participation to trained professionals, often with bachelor’s degrees and a few years of experience in social work. Public involvement, at most, took the form of donations or lower-commitment volunteer roles like providing transportation for families or tutoring English. But around 2015, community leaders across New Haven and Connecticut approached George, wishing to do more. 

“There was a distant memory of church or faith-based co-sponsorship,” George told me, referencing what he called an “informal network” of co-sponsorship from the nineteen-eighties. This was the original version, created to accommodate waves of Southeast Asian displacement after U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and Secret War in Laos. Often, these co-sponsors were local church groups working in collaboration with the USRAP. 

With its board, George combined IRIS’ organizational team structure with the everyday, informal volunteer force of those faith-based sponsors. They expanded co-sponsorship, both in capacity and demographic, by allowing any group of people to become sponsors, so long as their group was or became an established legal entity and had enough dedicated volunteers—typically upwards of twenty. Groups also needed proof that they could provide financial, cultural, and other practical assistance to a refugee family for at least one year.

This ragtag model had undeniable successes. In 2016, IRIS’ first full year of community co-sponsorship, the agency and its co-sponsors welcomed 530 refugees—“more than double any previous year,” according to IRIS’ website. These numbers were considerably larger than Connecticut’s other two major resettlement agencies the same year. Hartford Catholic Charities, which lacks a report for the 2016 fiscal year, was estimated by the Archdiocese of Hartford to have resettled 360. The Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI) resettled 127 (though CIRI does focus on providing its families up to five years of assistance). 

IRIS’ growth with community sponsorship is still going strong. The agency has gone from a pre-2016 annual average of two hundred resettlement cases to one thousand, expanding from cases of refugee resettlement to cases of asylum seekers and some immigrants. This success soon attracted national attention, bringing the IRIS agency to the center of the Welcome Corps itself. The agency’s role in the Welcome Corps: to support and provide information sessions to Welcome Corps applicants across the country as they build their own scaled-down versions of the New Haven co-sponsorship model. 

“There is a pressure from the United States public, for us to open up to democratize refugee resettlement,” George told me. “Peace Corps invited ordinary people to participate in foreign policy, right? This is a foreign policy program that operates in our own backyard, but we were not allowing public citizens [to participate] in a significant way. And now we are.” 

The Welcome Corps is meant to supplement—not replace—the USRAP, where UNHCR-approved refugees are sponsored by a network of ten national volunteer agencies and smaller professional affiliates like IRIS. Welcome Corps sponsors work in small Private Sponsorship Groups (PSGs) of at least five US citizens. While the Welcome Corps adds onto the U.S.’ capacity to resettle refugees, sponsor groups are still responsible for providing the same services as existing agencies: greeting families at the airport, finding and furnishing housing, seeking employment, and serving as guides to local communities and American culture. 

PSGs have two options to welcome a refugee family. The first is Matching, the random pairing of a sponsor group with a refugee family. When the Welcome Corps first launched, this was the only option available in the program’s first phase. Then, in December 2023, the second phase of the Welcome Corps introduced the Naming program—also called Sponsor a Refugee You Know—where PSGs could apply to sponsor a specific refugee living abroad. This development expanded the scope of who could sponsor a refugee family and who could be sponsored.

Yazan first stumbled upon the Welcome Corps’ website when it was still in the first phase. At the time, he hadn’t started working at IRIS and found the Welcome Corps as he’d been working with an immigration lawyer in New Haven, looking for other ways to get his family to the States sooner. The Welcome Corps wasn’t yet what he’d needed, but the idea stuck with him. 

When Yazan had opened the Phase 2 launch email in December, he left work early to assemble his own PSG. He drove straight to his uncle’s house in Farmington, and later that night, to a friend’s house in New Britain. Yazan’s father would have joined, Yazan told me, but he doesn’t yet have full citizenship. “I told them about Welcome Corps, explained everything to them,” Yazan told me, “and they were like, ‘Yeah. We’ll do it.’” Eventually, all five of them—Yazan, his uncle, his uncle’s wife, and two friends—gathered to sign off the forms for their background checks, committing them as private sponsors.

With over sixty-five thousand approved sponsors in the Welcome Corps and another eleven thousand applications currently in progress, the desire among everyday people—and burgeoning diasporic communities—to open their doors is clear. And as the Welcome Corps adapts IRIS’ co-sponsorship model for smaller volunteer groups and diffuses it across the nation, both supporters and critics have to wonder: will this expansion really work on a national scale?

Illustrations by Chris de Santis

Jean Silk lit a candle on her windowsill and prayed: God, I’m gonna find that woman. 

It was February 2016, Silk’s third month in charge of the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement (JCARR), a role she’d taken on after decades of work in international education and social action. “I’m not tired, and I’m not retired,” she’d later tell me. 

JCARR, a partnership of five local synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, was established in December 2015 as an IRIS community co-sponsor. Only a month after its inception, JCARR welcomed its first refugee family: three siblings in their 20s from the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Silk was looking for Marie, who was married to the eldest brother. The last to arrive in the U.S., Marie and their 2-year-old son had been sent to Indianapolis and were supposed to take a bus from there to New York. She’d then meet with her husband and a volunteer from JCARR, and they’d all take the Metro North back to New Haven together. When it was time for Marie to arrive at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the volunteer called Silk. Marie and her son were missing. 

Oh my god, Silk had thought. “I never asked if she spoke English. I never asked if she had a cell phone. I never asked if she was wearing a sign that says ‘I’m going to New Haven, send me to Jean Silk.’”

In New Haven, Silk spent the next five hours poring over bus routes, calling police officers from small-town stops in Pennsylvania, all the way to Port Authority. She thought about taking the late-night train to New York to find Marie herself. “But there were a lot of angels working that night,” she said. Around midnight, a Port Authority baggage employee called Silk’s phone, saying he was with Marie and her son. An officer also called from Port Authority, informing Silk that he deals with women and children—often victims of human trafficking. That officer took Marie and her son to Grand Central Station, where they boarded the train to New Haven. Accompanied by a “good Samaritan” on the Metro North, Marie and her son finally arrived at Union Station at 2 a.m., where Silk and Marie’s husband were waiting for them. 

That night, Silk told me, she learned a crucial lesson about the work of refugee resettlement: “Make no assumptions.” Helping Marie and her family had been Silk’s first resettlement case, and she had assumed that Marie had everything she needed to get to New Haven—despite traveling with an infant in an unfamiliar country. 

In an attempt to “expect the unexpected,” as Silk had put it, the process of becoming an approved community co-sponsorship group with IRIS is a rigorous one. IRIS requires each volunteer to complete a background check, register for liability insurance, read a thirty-page co-sponsor program manual, and complete a six-hour training session on their new responsibilities. IRIS also recommends that co-sponsor groups raise $4,000 to $10,000—enough to provide three to six months of financial assistance, mostly with rent. 

Eight years since the Port Authority incident, Silk and JCARR have resettled eight families and are currently working with their ninth—the most of any community co-sponsorship group that IRIS has worked with. But with the initial vetting and preparation that JCARR had gone through, and this near-decade of experience, Silk has found that maxim—make no assumptions—to be consistently true. The commitment to resettling a refugee family can easily become more than the community and goodwill that well-intentioned sponsors may have bargained for. 

“I always say this,” Silk told me, “Refugee resettlement is not romantic. It’s really hard work. Those phone calls come at any hour of the day or night, and you don’t always know the answer, but you feel like you need to come up with one.”

In a more extreme case, Silk recalls an instance of domestic violence within one of the families JCARR had sponsored. She wasn’t sure how to handle it and hadn’t expected the difficulty, pain, and potential danger that could arise from this kind of volunteer work. Both the man and woman had come to her for help.

“It’s hard, when you don’t know how to help people,” Silk said. She remembered how her daughter, a social worker, raised this concern too: “Mom, you’re not trained. You can’t solve this problem.”

The woman eventually obtained a restraining order, and is now safely raising her children. But it was after helping this family that Silk noticed the emotional toll this work could take on her. She’s since stepped back from more directly working with refugees, now focusing more heavily on JCARR’s administrative affairs and organizing its volunteers. Silk has faith in the expansion of refugee resettlement, but perhaps not for the everyday volunteer and on such a small scale—at least, not without sufficient support. “I would love to be wrong,” she said of the Welcome Corps, “but I believe that they’re probably naive.” 

Welcome Corps groups only have to be accountable as sponsors for ninety days—the Department of State’s minimum for all resettlement agencies. According to the Center for Migration Studies, this timeline isn’t enough to assist many families as they integrate into what is often an incredibly different way of living and with little to their name. In Connecticut, established resettlement agencies and longtime community co-sponsors have also expressed concern over the required ninety days that Welcome Corps sponsors must support refugee families, and whether these voluntary groups are prepared for the realities of this commitment. 

“So far, the people that have shown interest in the program have the means financially, but not the knowledge of how to access the services needed during the ninety-day period of resettlement,” Marenid Carattini, CIRI’s Director of Refugee Services told me. 

Most agencies provide their services for much longer: IRIS community co-sponsors must commit to assisting families for at least one year (JCARR helps for two to three), and CIRI has a five-year resettlement assistance program. Hartford Catholic Charities stopped accepting new refugee cases in 2019 but was still contractually obligated to help families for five years. Meanwhile, Carattini also noted that the extra time is crucial in handling long-term struggles, both predictable and unpredictable, like sudden employment, a loss of benefits, or assistance with the naturalization process. 

The Welcome Corps must walk a delicate line: ensure its program is accessible enough that it can fulfill its promise of democratizing resettlement, but keep the requirements rigorous enough to ensure that sponsors are equipped to properly resettle families. In the process, however, this creates a barrier for a newer demographic of sponsors from diasporic communities—often the ones with the most at stake to become a sponsor. 

In Yazan’s group, he took on the role of Coordinator, a designated member responsible for submitting the application and being the point of contact between Welcome Corps representatives and their PSG. He also took on as many sponsorship requirements as he could by himself—even though most PSGs work through them collectively. “I guess I didn’t want to bother them,” he said, concerned about his uncle and aunt’s own busy lives. 

Yazan completed the application, which included a list of questions prompting him for information on where sponsorees may find accessible healthcare, language services, and other public benefits. Then, he took a free, four-hour online course covering the “Sponsorship Essentials” of the Welcome Corps—another requirement that only Coordinators are obligated to complete. 

He then had to raise at least $9,700, a total of $2,425 per family member he hoped to sponsor. This minimum is based on the same amount that the Department of State currently provides to refugee resettlement agencies. To prevent misappropriation of government funds, it must be raised by sponsors alone. For Yazan, finding a place to put these funds—and prove there were enough—was the most difficult requirement, taking him two weeks to finish. He needed a bank statement from an account that listed the official name of his PSG. 

“I went to three different banks,” he says. “It was hard for me…I spent a whole week just trying to figure out how I’m going to show them that I’m financially stable.” 

Yazan finally turned to GoFundMe at another IRIS staffer’s advice. After a couple of months of outreach at local mosques, Yazan has since raised $7,920—82 percent of his minimum goal. 

Yazan’s group was approved as a certified Naming group three months after he had met each sponsorship requirement. 

“Once a group gets certified as a Naming Group, then a referral has been made to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” IRIS Director of Sponsorship Ann O’Brien told me, “[USRAP] still has to go and talk to the specific individual to see if the refugee claim can be accepted for the program. So we don’t know yet how long it will take for that process to happen.”

All that’s left is to wait. 

I asked Yazan if he knew anything about the timeline ahead for his sponsorship group, or when his family might be approved for resettlement. “They don’t really tell us,” he said. “[But] I’ve asked around and they told me anywhere between six months and two years.” 

The Welcome Corps has been around for less than two years, and its Naming program for about half that time. This jump in U.S. refugee resettlement, drawn from the old guard of nineteen-eighties co-sponsors and a New Haven agency’s statewide successes, is a bold one. But things are still early, still uncertain. Despite these uncertainties, Yazan can at least have some direct hand in bringing his family over far sooner, perhaps, than the fourteen years that his immigration lawyer had estimated before applying to the Welcome Corps. “It feels weird waiting,” he said, but he has hope. 

Yazan dreams of taking his mother to New York City. “She likes crowded places,” he says, “can’t go wrong with New York.” 

A little after our call, he will cook for Iftar to break his Ramadan fast. He tells me he’s not sure what he’ll make yet—maybe something with chicken. After that, perhaps some nighttime soccer. He will go to school the next day, and he will go to work to help IRIS with its intake of furniture for other refugees’ new homes. He will return to his own home, and so will his father. They will talk about their days and dial his mother, Ghaith, Yaman, and Joudi. He’ll talk with them, too. 

For now, impatiently, Yazan waits.

– Kylie Volavongsa is a junior in Silliman College and former Managing Editor of The New Journal.

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