By Maggi Johnson
I will never forget meeting “our” Afghan family at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport baggage claim. We knew almost nothing about them. That February evening, our pressing questions were if they spoke English or had winter coats. Our signs said “welcome” in Dari. Later we learned the dad is a writer who was specifically targeted by the Taliban. After a harrowing departure from Afghanistan, the young family spent months on a U.S. Army base before coming to Seattle. They found us — with big smiles on their faces. The mom said, “I never thought we would have so many friends to greet us in Seattle.”
The need for volunteer sponsors like us is enormous. We are just regular people who have found sponsorship to be challenging but doable, enormously rewarding, and while we know we aren’t solving all the world’s problems, it feels good to be “doing our bit” amid an international crisis. Our welcome and support makes a world of difference for one family. Everyone wants to help, but many think what we are doing must be too hard. It’s not — if we can do it, so can you.
“Overwhelmed” and “stretched beyond belief” are words you hear these days to describe the usual resettlement agencies, groups such as Lutheran Community Services and the International Rescue Committee. With up to 100,000 Ukrainians about to flood into our country, it’s hard to remember we’re still scrambling to deal with the 70,000 Afghans who arrived last year. For me, as I watched the Afghan crisis unfold, that feeling of, “I should do something to help” finally spilled over some inner threshold.
I tried to volunteer for the refugee support organizations. They never responded — they are that busy. So, inspired by reading a Seattle Times article about Viets for Afghans, my husband and I started our own “Sponsor Circle.” Sponsor Circle is a pilot program kick-started by the U.S. State Department during the Afghan crisis to enable volunteers to help incoming families directly. “Many hands make light work,” so we recruited a core of 11 close friends, including an architect, a librarian, a doctor, a tarot reader, a piano teacher and a couple of academics. We are all empty nesters; a few are semiretired.
Our job as volunteers is to provide the same services as the resettlement agencies including interpretation, temporary and long-term housing, signing the family up for social services, transportation, getting the kids into school, finding job-matching programs — everything needed to help them get on their feet within about three months. All the fun, but with minimal training and support!
In the past months, we’ve met weekly on Zoom to discuss issues and divvy up tasks. It is scary to take responsibility for a vulnerable family. But when we reflect on the brave journey they’ve made, we remember that what we’re doing is not so hard. With resourcefulness, persistence and occasional bursts of energy, we are doing it! The main job is to be consistent, friendly faces sitting with our family, working through paperwork and personally introducing them to the details of life here. We had to raise money, but that was easy — our community is keenly interested.
Our Afghan family is delightful. The vivacious 9-year-old loves her new school. We are watching the 1-year-old progress from crawling to walking. They have told us their stories and shared beautiful meals. It has only been three months, but with the dad about to start a new job and all improving their English, the family is close to independence. We are transitioning our relationship from “sponsors” to “friends.”
People ask, “How can we help?” There are hardworking refugee support organizations grateful to accept your donations. However, what’s most needed is people; the welcoming hands to support and guide these new arrivals. We are eager to mentor new circles. If you can imagine playing this role, check out sponsorcircles.org/ or ukraine.welcome.us/.