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Americans are invited to play a direct role in helping stem the refugee crisis


The Biden administration is inviting Americans to play a direct role in helping stem the refugee crisis. Welcome Corps is a new policy that allows private citizens to sponsor displaced people from around the world right in their own communities with help from nonprofit organizations. Alight is one such group.

ANATOLIY CHEREDNICHENKO: Because we speak the same language as the refugees, we can understand their needs better. And because we have that insider perspective, we can share it with the American sponsors so that they kind of have that insight as well.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Anatoliy Cherednichenko, who serves as a guide with Alight to identify and train potential American sponsors.

CHEREDNICHENKO: It's been incredible. We've been talking to multiple sponsors about their ongoing experiences. They just feel like the citizens of the world. So for them, it doesn't matter whether it's Ukraine or whether there is a crisis in Afghanistan, they feel like they want to step up and help whoever is experiencing this crisis, because in the end, we all share the same land. We all live on the same planet. And seeing that kind of cosmopolitan perspective in Americans we're working with is truly incredible because you understand how many good people are here in the world. We just need to identify them and work with them so that they feel supported.

MARTÍNEZ: I asked Alight CEO Jocelyn Wyatt about what she hears are the biggest concerns from people thinking about becoming refugee sponsors.

JOCELYN WYATT: They really want to make sure that they're doing well by the family that is arriving, and that they're going to be able to provide for their needs. Our guides often want to make sure that people have beyond the basic needs of housing and food and health care, but that they really have a sense of belonging and connection and are able to build really strong relationships both with the sponsor groups but also with other diaspora communities and the broader local community that they're resettling into.

MARTÍNEZ: So when a potential sponsor asks, OK, so what's involved here? What am I looking forward to? What do you tell them?

WYATT: Yeah. So for the new program with Welcome Corps, the requirement is financial support of $2,275 per refugee that the sponsor group needs to be able to commit. In addition to that, it's three months of support, which includes everything from meeting the family at the airport and bringing them to the new house or apartment where they'll be living. Getting kids into school, making sure that they have the appropriate clothing and furniture and everything that they need, that they are helping connect them with jobs, getting them enrolled in English language classes and really connecting to a broader community so that they are able to build those relationships and feel like this new place is home for them, where they can imagine really amazing future for themselves and their families going forward.

MARTÍNEZ: And we're talking about refugees. Yeah. So I mean, these are people that have gone through some pretty stressful, if not life-threatening situations. Is there any kind of training in terms of how the potential sponsors need to be around the people that they're taking in?

WYATT: Absolutely. So part of the training program that Alight offers to the sponsor groups is around understanding the psychosocial support that's needed. We run programs in psychological first aid, but also have opportunities for referral for mental health resources through professionals as well, because we understand the trauma that people have experienced and take that really seriously.

MARTÍNEZ: And I'm guessing it's a lot different to feel compassion for refugees that you see on the news every single night, but it's a much different story when they're actually in the room sitting next to you and living there.

WYATT: That's right. Everyone that we talked to who has had the opportunity to connect with the new arrivals or serve as a sponsor has told us that the experience has been absolutely transformative for themselves and their families. They're seeing that this is a real opportunity to enrich communities in the U.S. through bringing in more diversity, people from different cultural backgrounds, to bring in people that can productively work and serve in jobs in this country where we have a real need for labor force.

MARTÍNEZ: And it sounds like a wonderful opportunity to share cultures. Jocelyn, I'll be honest, I'm thinking food. (Laughter) I mean, you could share recipes and how to make food, you know, and dishes that maybe you wouldn't have had before.

WYATT: Absolutely. We see plenty of that, which is sort of sharing these cooking lessons. We see sharing music. We've seen Afghan women who are teaching music classes to Minnesotan women and children.

MARTÍNEZ: So how long do you anticipate the process to take for a refugee applicant from start to finish?

WYATT: We're hoping to receive the first new arrivals through the Welcome Corps program in April. And so we are currently recruiting people that want to sign up as sponsors. And as we do that, Welcome Corps will be matching those sponsor groups with the refugees, many of whom have been waiting years, if not decades for resettlement. Many of the people that will be in the first wave to participate in this program are refugees that Alight has worked with for decades in places like Rwanda, where we're serving Congolese refugees, for instance. And so this is such an incredible opportunity to really start to transition folks out of refugee camps, into more permanent resettlement opportunities in a country like the United States, where so many refugees have such a strong desire to move to and resettle.

MARTÍNEZ: Comparing the current presidential administration to the one previous, what kind of a shift does this initiative, then, demonstrate in terms of how the U.S. is trying to deal with the immigration crisis?

WYATT: This is a huge shift from the previous administration. There are a number of efforts that this administration has launched, Welcome Corps being the most recent of them. But this is really amazing opportunity for the U.S. to see what it looks like for us to be the type of country that welcomes in refugees, that's able to provide safe haven and opportunity and a pathway to a rich and desirable future for people that have experienced such trauma, have experienced such hardship in their lives. And so this is a moment for America to be as generous as we know that we can be as a country.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Jocelyn Wyatt, CEO of Alight. Jocelyn, thanks.

WYATT: Thank you so much. It was great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF HRISHIKESH HIRWAY'S "BREATHE IN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.