In August, Son Duong and his 18-year-old son, Nathan, watched a TV report of desperate Afghans fleeing Kabul on a military plane. Nathan saw his dad jump a little. He was having a flashback.
“Oh my God! I was in that position,” the older Duong said he was thinking. A 52-year-old artist who creates Trader Joe’s signage and lives in Monroe, he had been on a similar plane 46 years ago.
Saigon was falling. He and his brother, playing in an alley, were swept up by their father, who had suddenly arrived home: “It’s time to go.”
“Go where?” the 5-year-old thought.
Son remembers commotion in the street as they reached the end of the alley, then his dad pushing him through the window of a crowded bus, and being pushed back out when it became clear the bus was stalled. They walked on to an American military base near the airport, where in a bowling alley he was reunited with his mom, sister, uncle and aunt.
A cavernous, seatless plane with red and orange lights — seemingly everywhere, to a child’s eye — came to take the refugees away.
Seeing the images of evacuating Afghans decades later, Nathan was the first in his family to get the idea: Maybe we should help. He got in touch with Viets for Afghans, a newly formed group of Vietnamese Americans in the Seattle area driven by their own families’ experiences to support this newest wave of refugees.
Now, the Duong family and several other members of Viets for Afghans plan to participate in a federal program launched last month that could radically change how some refugees are resettled. With tens of thousands of Afghan refugees stuck on U.S. military bases, many waiting for overwhelmed agencies to bring them into communities around the country, the State Department is inviting private citizens to form “sponsor circles.”
Just like resettlement agencies, which will continue to do this work, the circles of five or more people commit to helping refugees get housing, jobs, furniture, clothes, government benefits and whatever else they need to start a new life. The circles also must raise $2,275 for each sponsored individual to replace money typically provided by the federal government.
The program is just for Afghan refugees, who can choose to be resettled by agencies or private sponsors, and is a precursor to a larger private sponsorship effort the Biden administration plans to start next year. It is modeled on similar programs in Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
Washington is projected to be among the top five locations for Afghan resettlement, because of a significant community of Afghan Americans already here, said state refugee coordinator Sarah Peterson. Roughly 1,000 Afghan refugees have come since July, and at least 1,500 more are expected over the next three months, she said.
Locally, the sponsor circle program has been greeted with excitement, as well as questions and concerns.
“I love the idea of getting the private sector and individuals and community organizations to really step up and help address this critical gap that we have right now,” said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, and a former Afghan refugee who came to the U.S. as a child. “The refugee agencies, you know, they’re fantastic, but they’re being tested in unprecedented ways.”
Afzali, whose organization is partnering with the state to welcome Afghan refugees, has been working with the Viets for Afghans circle and said she believes the group is proceeding thoughtfully. At the same time, she worries that some sponsors might be unprepared for this level of responsibility and wants to know more about how the program will work before encouraging others to become sponsors.
Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, has put his concerns more sharply.
“You’re basically taking really well-meaning people without significant supervision, and in most cases with very little knowledge, and asking them to do the work of a professional,” Berkovitz said. Canada has had decades to build a private sponsorship system, he added, advocating a go-slow approach that relies on coordination between volunteers and experienced agencies.
Matt Misterek, a spokesperson for Lutheran Community Services Northwest, said his agency already coordinates with many volunteers who supplement its work. Having an organizational backbone gives refugees support that volunteers on their own possibly couldn’t give, he said. For instance, with money from its church network and fundraising and on top of federal dollars, Lutheran Community Services helps refugees for six months to a year. The sponsor circle program asks for a three-month commitment.
But everything doesn’t necessarily go smoothly with agencies, many of which scaled down as the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions and are now having to rapidly rebuild.
Navid Hamidi, executive director of the Afghan Health Initiative in Kent, said his organization has been paying for some refugees’ groceries because of snags in getting food stamps they’re entitled to, problems that agency caseworkers have been unable to resolve.
Danielle Grigsby — co-founder of the Community Sponsorship Hub, a nonprofit charged by the federal government with managing sponsor applications — said there’s an extensive vetting process, including a background check, a knowledge test based on online curriculum, and review of a resettlement plan that applicants must submit.
The government will not directly monitor sponsors. But Grigsby said sponsors must file 30- and 90-day reports to the Hub and organizations it is working with, and the government will be notified of any problems. Grigsby also said some organizations will provide ongoing support to sponsors.