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The State Department makes it easier for anyone to help resettle refugees


The U.S. has pledged to admit a hundred thousand refugees fleeing from Ukraine. But resettlement agencies in the U.S. are already stretched thin, and that's prompting some refugee advocates to try out a new approach where regular people play a bigger role. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When the Ghafoori family arrived in the U.S. a few months ago, they had never even heard of Alabama.

SHARIFA GHAFOORI: (Through interpreter) When they showed us the pictures, I liked it. And now that we are here, we like it a lot. This is the best place for us, and we are not going anywhere.

ROSE: Sharifa and Homayoon Ghafoori fled Kabul last year with their six kids. He had worked as a security guard at the U.S. Embassy. They had no family in the U.S. and no friends. But that changed pretty quickly once they arrived in Huntsville. Sharifa switches from Dari to English when she names all the people who've helped them since January.

GHAFOORI: I made a lots of friend in here (laughter) - Miss Amy, Miss Megan, Mr. Kyle, and Miss Julie's mother-in-law.

ROSE: Miss Julie is Julie Johnson. She's one of the main reasons why the Ghafooris are in Alabama at all. Julie and her husband, Ben, organized what's known as a sponsor circle to host them. It's a new program created by refugee advocates and the U.S. State Department to make it easier for anyone to get involved in resettling Afghan refugees and help fill some gaps in the system.

JULIE JOHNSON: When we saw the withdrawal happen over the summer, Ben being a veteran and having worked closely with the community in Afghanistan, I mean, he was just very distressed and distraught.

BEN JOHNSON: I am fully aware that a lot of people I served with were - the Afghans I served with were killed. Many of them did not make it throughout the year. So when we got the chance to repay this kind of personal debt, I had to say yes.

ROSE: These sponsor circles do many of the same things that resettlement agencies do for new arrivals. First, though, they have to jump through a lot of hoops to show that they're ready, and they have to raise money - more than $2,000 for each refugee they resettle - to cover rent and other expenses. Ben Johnson says his family found the money by canceling a trip to Disney World. When he started asking others in Huntsville to help, he was surprised by the positive response.

B JOHNSON: It's a very patriotic town. People wanted to help, and we presented people the opportunity to help, which I don't think people ever got before.

ROSE: This is part of the idea behind sponsor circles, to get more people involved in helping refugees who might not have gotten involved before. So far, there are only a few hundred sponsor circles nationwide, but supporters hope the program can scale up quickly.

SASHA CHANOFF: This is kind of the DNA for what might turn into a broader private sponsorship effort.

ROSE: Sasha Chanoff is with RefugePoint, one of the many nonprofit organizations that have been working to get sponsor circles off the ground. The traditional refugee resettlement agencies that have done this work for years were forced to make deep cuts during the Trump administration. They're struggling to keep up with demand, and that was before the U.S. pledged to take a hundred thousand refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. Chanoff says sponsor circles could help the U.S. make good on that commitment.

CHANOFF: I think it has the capacity both to expand the scope of where refugees resettle in the U.S., and I also think it has the potential to help far more refugees come here.

ROSE: For now, the sponsor circle program is still working on the basics. In Huntsville, as in much of the country, the big challenge has been affordable housing. Ben Johnson thought he'd found a good place for the Ghafooris. But when the landlords saw them in person, Johnson says, they got cold feet.

B JOHNSON: We were there to sign the lease with the check in hand. Then they decided to change their mind because they would - they wouldn't know how to evict. I would say it was the most difficult, and it was the most frustrating part. And we had some choice words after conversations that we won't say out loud again.

ROSE: But Johnson found another place, renting from a company that had more experience with refugees. The Ghafooris seem thrilled with their new house. Their kids are sleeping in beds for the first time. Homayoon has found a job, and Sharifa is learning how to drive.

GHAFOORI: I like driving (laughter).

ROSE: What are you going to do when you can drive? Where are you going to go?

GHAFOORI: I will go to work and university. I want to go to university also. I like to learn a lot.

ROSE: Ben and Julie Johnson are planning an Independence Day party for the Ghafooris to mark 90 days since they arrived in Huntsville. That's when their formal commitment to the family ends, though they would all agree that it feels more like a beginning.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER KLEIN'S "THE FLOWER AND THE SEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.