Abdul Qayum Mohmand worked in security for the United States military for seven years. During the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan in August, he spent three days at the Kabul airport with his wife and three children as they waited for a flight to leave the country. He said the scene was terrifying.
“Taliban soldiers firing around the crowd to spread it. I was so scared for my kids to be in this danger,” he told GBH News through an interpreter.
As approximately 55,000 Afghan evacuees await resettlement, the United States' nine national resettlement agencies and some 200 local affiliates won’t be able to keep up with their needs. That’s why President Joe Biden's administration launched a program that allows groups of private citizens, called “sponsor circles,” to help acclimate evacuees to the country. Massachusetts could become home to at least 1,000. Mohmand's family are among the couple hundred Afghans who have been resettled here so far.
After being evacuated, they landed at a Texas military base in early September for processing, medical checkups and background checks.
The family had a friend who lives in Massachusetts, so they asked if they could be placed close to him. A resettlement agency found the family housing, and they moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Lynn in mid-October.
“It’s peaceful here and everything is provided to us, to my kids and my family,” Mohmand said in a phone interview through interpreter Rahmatullah Aka, who is a manager of community services for International Institute of New England, a Massachusetts-based resettlement provider. “People have been helping with housing, medical, food. I feel comfortable compared to the way we lived before.”
“This [Sponsor Circle Program] absolutely supplements our needs. The resettlement agencies have told the Biden administration that we only have so much capacity to do our work,” said Jeffrey Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England, one of 200 resettlement agencies. “We were decimated under the Trump administration. The number of resettlement agencies in this country dropped by about 35 percent. All of the agencies that do this work reduced staff.”
At least five people — all of whom live in the same community — are needed to create a sponsor circle. The members agree to help for at least the first 90 days of a newcomer's resettlement, which may involve responsibilities such as helping them find a place to live, enrolling children in schools, connecting them with English language classes, and basic necessities like food and clothing. They are also expected to be sensitive to religion and culture, and understand that evacuees might be arriving with trauma.
People who apply to be part of a sponsor circle will be subject to a mandatory background check and a test on understanding the legal status, documentation and benefits available to Afghan evacuees. That includes a working knowledge and no judgment of the legal issues around humanitarian parole, the government program used to bring in the Afghans, which is only used in emergency situations when other protections are unsuitable because of long processing times.
Humanitarian parolees can stay in the United States for up to two years, although they can be approved to stay longer until they achieve asylum or become a special immigrant visa holder. They are authorized to work, receive a social security card, and are eligible for a driver’s license.
Once the sponsor circle applicants understand the responsibilities they will take on, they must raise at least $2,275 per person they wish to help and demonstrate they secured 60% of those funds before submitting their application.
The State Department created the program with Community Sponsorship Hub, a project created this year by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers Inc. They were aided by RefugePoint, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that has spent decades identifying Afghan refugees abroad to resettle.
RefugePoint Founder and CEO Sasha Chanoff considers the new “sponsor circle” program to be one of the most significant innovations in U.S. refugee resettlement since the 1980 Refugee Act. That law established the modern-day Refugee Admissions Program and nearly tripled the annual ceiling of refugees to 50,000.
“These evacuations, of course, were unprecedented. The number of people we brought in so quickly, the need to evacuate people from Kabul, the heartbreaking nature of those evacuations, the fact that people were fleeing for their lives,” Chanoff said. “Now these people are here in the U.S. — these Afghan evacuees — and we have a crisis situation on our hands. But at the same time, out of crisis is often born innovation and opportunity."
Because the sponsor circle program is not government-funded, RefugePoint is looking for private donors to keep it moving, with $25 million in seed money from Airbnb and resources from other groups like the International Rescue Committee.
“People who engage in this process often find that it's the most meaningful thing they've ever done,” said Chanoff.
Mohmand said the help provided by the International Institute of New England has been vital for his family. He described being given a one-time payment of $1,225 from the federal government for each family member to help pay rent, though he says he’d like to find a security job and pay his own rent.
“People here are always coming to my house, even checking on me to see if I need something," he said. "So, this is really, really great for me and I'm really appreciating all these supporters.”