Apr 26, 2022
Opinion Piece by Andy DouglasPress - Citizen opinion writer
Opinion: Think about how you can help resettle an Afghan family, even here in Iowa City
Andy DouglasPress-Citizen opinion writer
Published 10:00 a.m. CT April 26, 2022
When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan last year, thousands of Afghans and their families — translators or others working with the U.S. military — fled the country.
Many have been waiting on military bases around the world to be relocated and start their lives anew in the U.S.
Immigration writer Sally Hayden notes, “One of the greatest challenges to humanity in the 21st century will be how it deals with migration. How much suffering must a human go through to be seen as equal?”
Imagine, for a moment, what that must be like. Abandoning your home, severing relationships, leaving behind your extended family, beloved pets, your career, and plunging into an unknown world.
Many U.S. citizens felt the pain of these refugees, or felt uneasy about how the U.S. has operated in Afghanistan, and have wondered how they could help.
Resettlement agencies have been tasked with bringing in and settling these refugees, and that has been going on admirably, but these agencies are sometimes overwhelmed by the task.
To help fill in some of the gaps, the State Department has encouraged the formation of small groups of five or so people, called Sponsor Circles, to sponsor an Afghan family. These small citizen groups are often nimble and dedicated and collectively offer a number of resources to immigrants.
The first Iowa City circle — Iowa City Afghan Allies, of which I am a member — formed several months ago. Local businessperson Eric Jones landed on the idea of starting one after reading about the possibility in the New York Times.
He reached out to five others. We began to meet and organize, and are now prepared to host a family after having been vetted by an umbrella organization in Washington, D.C.
It’s a big task, as you can imagine: arranging housing, jobs, preparing to enroll kids in schools, helping with immigration paperwork. Sponsor Circles work to offer immigrant families a start, so that they can make a go of things in their new life, easing into self-sufficiency.
The Unitarian Universalist Society and Faith United Church of Christ have both supported this particular effort. Thanks to them, there is housing ready and furnished, and money raised to help the family get on their feet.
Now, we wait. We could be matched with a family within a week, or it could take several months. We hope it will be sooner rather than later.
Ida Grove is currently the only other community in Iowa with support circles. Given the need, we anticipate others will be forming soon around the state.
In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage Iowa Citians reading this to consider forming their own circle and sponsoring a family. While many Afghans have resettled in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City has few so far.
Erin Howe, one of the directors of ReactDC, which oversees our circle, writes about the resettling process: “Newcomers are coming into the National Conference Center from overseas ‘lily pad’ safe havens. They receive initial medical screenings, complete any necessary paperwork required for their immigration documents, and meet with counselors to help them find the right option for their resettlement needs: traditional resettlement agency, sponsor circles, etc.”
Our circle has learned that newcomers often look for communities where they already have a connection. Counselors work with them to find the best fit, but ultimately, it’s their decision where they will go.
I also spoke with Therese Bimka of New Paltz, New York, who has helped resettle several Afghan families in her community. Her group formed committees — Education and Enrichment, Transportation, Legal, Employment — to expedite the work. They chose point people to communicate directly with the families when they arrived, so as not to overwhelm them. Based on her advice, our group is expanding our plans to include tutoring and enrichment activities for the kids: trips to parks, art classes, museums.
Watch this space for updates on the family. If you’re interested in joining a circle to support a family, contact me, or Sally Hartman at email@example.com. And check out Iowa City Afghan Allies on Facebook.
Andy Douglas is the author of "Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir" and "The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga."