Wondering about sponsoring a refugee? Here’s how it worked for one volunteer | The Best Samaritan with Jamie Aten and Kent Annan

The Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans is an emergency coalition initiative that supports Afghan newcomers already in the United States. This is the story of a group from Montana who came together to host a refugee family. To apply to become a Certified Sponsor Circle, visit Sponsor Circles to learn more.

Kent Annan, director of the humanitarian and disaster leadership program at Wheaton College, interviewed HDL student Nancy Van Maren about her experience with the Sponsor Circle.

How did you get involved in the humanitarian crisis of Afghan evacuees fleeing Kabul and going to American military bases?

I got involved with my enrollment in the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership graduate program at Wheaton College. Program director Kent Annan learned of the need for volunteers to help greet evacuees at US military bases and offered that opportunity to students who could move quickly with little information.

Interestingly, just three weeks earlier, a group of us hosted a World Relief representative, Matthew Soerens, to build our community’s support for a refugee resettlement office. At the time, Kabul had not yet fallen, but Soerens said he was very concerned about how the departure of the United States would play out for the Afghans. Her concern sensitized me to the great impending need and I began to read everything I could about the situation.

When you left after serving on base, did you already have a plan in mind? Or what gave you the idea?

It was sad and difficult to leave base because it seemed like my ability to help the people I had grown to love in some way was over. I remember telling a friend close to the base that I wanted more than anything to host Afghans at my house for dinner, but that was simply impossible.

The opportunity to create a mentoring circle arose in October when we heard about this new capacity building program. One of our group members who had been working with us for over a year to set up a resettlement office here, heard the news and we immediately jumped on it. We saw it as our opportunity to *be* a resettlement agency without having one here – a way to both learn the ropes and convince a resettlement agency that we could do it successfully.

Can you briefly explain how you explored this idea – who did you talk to, how did you try to gather the people you would need to move forward, what seemed to be the easiest and what seemed the most intimidating?

I think our process was probably easier than many. Looking back, everything went incredibly well. Our community group had already established communication channels, so all we had to do was find a time for busy people to meet. For the first Sponsor Circle meeting, I have compiled an agenda based on the application requirements found on the Sponsor Circle website. We went through the list of information that would be needed and, remarkably, the people around the table indicated which parts they were going to gather. My main role was to collect information from all contributors, follow up with questions and compile them into an application, filling in the holes where necessary.

We all may have had different ideas of what would be easier and more difficult. When we started, I thought fundraising would be the hardest part and didn’t think much about translation, as I had spent time with many translators on base. Turns out I got this exactly backwards, by the way! Funds and other donations literally poured in, and we were unable to identify a single local Pashto speaker who could help us. Overall, however, the biggest hurdle is housing: a community can only house as many Afghans as it can find affordable and suitable housing for, and ideally that housing will have access to public transport. .

How many people were in your sponsorship circle?

Five people out of the group of about 8 were the official signatories of the request.

Can you describe the preparation process, what you focused on, what are the essential things you need to put in place to be properly ready for the family?

The preparation process began with our meeting more than a year ago around a common interest. Our group is theologically and professionally diverse, and several members of the group of 8 are very well connected in our community. It was nice to see people give of their strengths: housing, fundraising, preparing for language courses, access to legal expertise, basic resources, preparing a personal budget, knowing the benefits and the application process, cultural connections and community awareness. To some degree, we each focused on our areas of expertise or interest, and I just brought it all together administratively.

We learned a lot from a nonprofit that supports Montana’s only relocation office in Missoula. We heard about the welcome kits and language courses and the first needs of refugees in conversations with them.

If I had to identify the most impactful preparation step, it would be the informational communications sent to a large mailing list of already intrigued community members. With just a few updates, the circle of support has grown exponentially. I answered dozens and dozens of phone calls and emails over the weeks of preparation, as did several others. We created spreadsheets to track needs and match them with volunteers, and we wore the airwaves with our communications with each other – trying to coordinate this BIG new thing.

We are delighted that you and your community are seeking to host in this way. We’ll contact you in a few months to find out more about how it’s going and what you’ve learned. But prior to arrival, as you prepare personally, what has been most important to your preparation – through your time in the HDL program, other experiences in your life, spiritually?

Two things come to mind:

  • First, the course I took in the HDL program on refugees and forced migration provided in-depth information on immigration, the refugee reception system, history, politics, process – all of that has boosted my credibility when talking about this process and the need. I came back from the base with a passion for do something more, but I needed concrete “data” and an ease to share it in order to gain the support of my community.

  • Second, I have been reminded over and over again that this is the work of the Lord. We marveled at feeling like spectators most of the time, as we watched people and material resources come together. We saw hearts soften and the community become welcoming, without any skills that none of us had. Sometimes, we even received the meeting of a need at the same time as we became aware of it… It is a miraculous process which leaves me filled with gratitude and joy. The goodness of God is so apparent right now and in this space.

Nancy Van Maren is in her final semester as an HDL student at Wheaton. Prior to enrolling at HDL, Nancy had a career in public policy and administration and wrote and taught professionally. Currently, she and her husband live in Montana, which she hopes to keep as a “home base” for future humanitarian work.

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