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The first refugees, privately sponsored by Americans, have arrived in the U.S.


This week, the first family under a new State Department program called Welcome Corps arrived in a small city in Minnesota.

JULIETA VALLS NOYES: This program of private sponsorship for refugees being resettled in the United States is something brand-new.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Julieta Valls Noyes. She's assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

VALLS NOYES: We are just doing it in the United States for the very first time after over 40 years since the creation of the U.S. refugee admissions program. And we're really excited about it because it gives everyday Americans the opportunity to do what they do best, which is welcome newcomers to their community.

MARTÍNEZ: Their goal is to resettle 5,000 refugees in the first year of the program. It's one way Valls Noyes hopes to rebuild the country's capacity to welcome more refugees. But the program also does something else.

VALLS NOYES: It expands the geography of where they can go, because up until now, refugees had to go to cities where we had resettlement agencies or their affiliates.

MARTÍNEZ: On Tuesday, Erin Schutte Wadzinski, along with a sponsor group she's spearheading in Worthington, Minn., welcomed three generations of one family from the Democratic Republic of Congo - a grandmother who fled her home country, the daughter she had in a refugee camp in Tanzania and two little granddaughters born in that same refugee camp. Our co-host, Leila Fadel, spoke with Erin about the family's arrival in their new home.

ERIN SCHUTTE WADZINSKI: My 3-year-old daughter and I had the opportunity to greet them at the airport. Our sign said welcome to the United States - karibu, which is welcome in Kibeembe. And as my daughter went to bed that night, she said, are my new friends going to be at school tomorrow?



WADZINSKI: Initially, the family was very overwhelmed. And that was visible on their faces.

FADEL: Tell me about what this program looks like for people who maybe will become sponsors or are listening to this and learning about the program and all that you're doing.

WADZINSKI: Our sponsor group is responsible for arranging transportation from the airport to their new home. One of our sponsor group members drove the family home in her family van, along with an interpreter. They were most excited to take a shower and rest.

FADEL: Yeah, long journey.

WADZINSKI: But I'm told that after we all left, what actually occurred was a dance party in the living room (laughter).

FADEL: Really?

WADZINSKI: Yeah (laughter).

FADEL: It's a huge responsibility what your sponsor group is taking on, right? I mean, what was the preparation like in the months before you went to the airport with the sign?

WADZINSKI: This has taken months of preparation. And the individuals in our sponsor group did not all know each other prior to forming this group, which is special in and of itself. But we've met on a regular basis. The Welcome Corps program guided us through a series of exercises to prepare to welcome a family. One of the biggest challenges our sponsor group has faced is finding housing for this family. There's a housing shortage in Worthington, just as there is in many metro areas across the nation. One challenge we've run into is that, typically, you need a Social Security number to apply for a lease with an apartment. While we've been scoping out housing options that will become available to them once they have their required documents for an application, we've also had to work to identify temporary housing that can be sort of their, like, welcoming landing pad, so to speak.

FADEL: And what advice do you have for people who are hearing this story and might want to create a sponsor group and do this themselves?

WADZINSKI: Nearly 32,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States in the last eight months. And this number is the highest number of refugees that the United States has seen resettled since 2017. I applaud President Biden for raising the annual cap to 125,000. We're still a long ways from seeing that come to fruition. I see the Welcome Corps program as an opportunity to maybe help meet some of those resettlement targets, and also, like, creating a pathway for individuals to be able to get actively involved in supporting the resettlement of refugees from around the world.

FADEL: How would you feel if we called you back in three months to see how things are going and maybe talk to the family with you as well?

WADZINSKI: I think that'd be a great idea.

MARTÍNEZ: Erin Schutte Wadzinski is an immigration attorney spearheading a Welcome Corps sponsor group in Worthington, Minn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.