Opinion: Communities work together to resettle refugees

SOLUTIONS: Global affairs at home

Wars in Syria, Afghanistan and now Ukraine are overwhelming the way the world handles and permanently resettles refugees. But an approach called “community sponsorship,” recently endorsed by the U.S. government, is helping and may actually work better.

Think of it as creating a surrogate community for the refugees.

Instead of governments and nongovernmental organizations completely managing a refugee’s case, neighbors, faith-based groups and co-workers pitch in. They commit to giving refugee families financial, emotional and practical support as they build new lives in a new country.

What’s different?

Usually, the United States accepts refugees and for about three months helps them find a home, job and schools for their children. After that, refugee families still have access to special services, but have to handle it on their own. Many struggle with English or understanding how America works.

With community sponsorship, the government works with a nonprofit organization that has a network of volunteers in the refugee’s community ready to help. The teams can range from 5 to 20 people who are on call with a refugee family for at least the first six months, though often longer.

These volunteers may help the family with paying rent, paperwork, enrolling children in school, practicing the local language, navigating cultural differences and anything else they might need.

The United States government only started using community sponsorship in October to support Afghan refugees. But the United Nations and other countries have been at it for years.

Canada, for example, has settled 300,000 refugees this way. Their research showed the sponsorship approach builds stronger bonds in a refugees’ new neighborhood — and the surrounding community becomes more open-minded.

Within five years, 70 percent of sponsored refugees were earning income. Twenty years later, the refugees’ income was above the Canadian average.

These facts around income are important because an overwhelming number of Americans who oppose immigration do so because they think it hurts the economy, according to a recent NewsNation poll.

Why do we need it?

About 84 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict or violence and resettlement spots are available for less than 1 percent of them. As a result, there’s a desperate need for programs that can help more people.

More than half a million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries following the Russian invasion. It’s likely some of them will end up in the United States at some point and possibly be eligible for community sponsorship. But that process of vetting, paperwork and interviews often takes years.

Multiple nonprofit organizations in the United States have been using a community sponsorship approach on their own to help refugees.

Having a federal policy is important, though, because it makes community sponsorship easier to implement and consistent. The U.S. resettles more refugees than any other country. Nonprofit organizations pick up a lot of that slack.

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