A family of Afghan evacuees is arriving in Massachusetts next week, one of the first to be resettled through a new program that allows private citizens to band together and help the displaced through a so-called sponsor circle.
Rebecca Leventhal and Sarah Muncey are part of a group of eight greater Boston residents who jointly applied to be part of the program. Next week they will welcome a couple and three children, becoming the first sponsor circle to receive a family in Massachusetts.
Leventhal, Muncey and their six other circle participants understand the gravity of helping people restart their lives in a place far from home.
Muncey said there’s a kind of Jewish mantra that if you save one life, you’re saving the world.
“I know we're not saving lives. I remind myself that it's not going to feel like a drop in the bucket to this family,” she said. “But in this time of global crisis, everyone has to look at themselves and say, ‘If it's not me, who is it?’ You know, 'If we don't do this, who's going to do this?' So that's why we're doing it."
President Joe Biden's administration launched the national sponsor circle program last fall to supplement resettlement agencies strained under the number of evacuees they were suddenly receiving when the U.S. military abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban. The State Department created the program with a coalition of organizations, including React DC, which is helping Leventhal and Muncey’s group, Home for Refugees and Welcome.US. After months of preparation, the U.S. government and nonprofits gave the blessing to match refugee families with sponsor circles.
Sponsor circles have so far welcomed 415 Afghan evacuees across 29 states, according to the Community Sponsorship Hub coalition, which is overseeing applications. Leventhal and Muncey hope more Bay Staters will consider dedicating their time and resources to the effort.
“We can only imagine what they did to get themselves here,” Leventhal said. Thousands of Afghans, including many who helped the American military with interpretation and planning, had to flee their country quickly last summer, or risk death after the Taliban gained control.
Most of the sponsor circle participants were teenagers around the time of 9/11 and the start of the war in Afghanistan, and some feel the weight of how U.S. intervention impacted peoples’ lives there.
“I feel like we failed them as a nation in the way that we addressed 9/11, the longevity of the war, the sort of murkiness of what the end goal was — it just felt like we had to do it,” Muncey said.
Leventhal and Muncey met through political activism, and aren’t strangers to connecting people in need with social services. Leventhal launched a platform on dementia caregiving, and Muncey is co-president and co-founder of nonprofit Neighborhood Villages. They’re both Jewish, but other members of their sponsor circle come from different faith and belief systems.
They’re taking respecting the evacuees culture and faith seriously, along with their privacy.
“Our role in taking this on is to enable their success and independence. It doesn't give us any right to information about their lives or directing their lives,” said Leventhal. “It's really about helping support them to lead independent lives in the U.S.”
"I feel like we failed them as a nation in the way that we addressed 9/11, the longevity of the war ... it just felt like we had to do it."Sarah Muncey
To get approval as a sponsor circle, a group has to have at least five members who live in the same area.
The local group of eight had individual background checks done, and Muncey took an hourlong online training on behalf of the group covering issues such as different visas that might apply and what kinds of social services the group had to provide.
Circle members have to agree to help for at least the first 90 days of a newcomers’ 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. All those details — who was volunteering to do what, and which nonprofits they wanted to connect with — went into a Google spreadsheet.
Housing was a hard task to wrap their heads around.
“It's like a chicken and egg problem. You're filling out a plan that is supposed to be very specific, but you don't know when you’re going to get a family and what the family will look like,” said Leventhal. “Like we're not going to rent an apartment for four people to find out they're not coming for three months and they're actually eight people."
Luckily, Muncey’s husband works in real estate, and was able to connect the group with housing options. They connected with a foundation that helps refugees get reduced priced housing.
The circle connected with a few Afghan families to get advice on things like culturally appropriate grocery lists. They also hope to work with Jewish Vocational Services to connect the newcomers to English classes and apprenticeship opportunities for work.
Sponsor circle participants are required to fundraise at least $2,275 per person they wish to help. Muncey and Leventhal’s group pooled more than $11,000 of their own funds into an escrow account and will fundraise in the future.
“We know that there will be financial obligation beyond that. Like $10,000 is not going to get you started in America,” said Muncey. After filing an application, they met with React DC, which is involved with providing resettlement assistansce. The application was accepted a few weeks ago.
The circle got word a few days ago that their family will arrive next week. They rented a 2-bedroom apartment with a May 1 lease start date, and are furnishing it over the weekend for a couple with three children, ages 2, 4 and 8. Several other Afghan families live in the same complex, and the school system the children will likely go to has other Afghan students.
The family will be greeted at Logan Airport by circle sponsors with welcome signs and minivans. Muncey is hoping the family can find their new apartment and home city “welcoming, and familiar.”