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A new private sponsorship program lets everyday Americans help refugees settle in

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.N. called it a sobering milestone last year. For the first time on record, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes around the world reached 100 million. Now the State Department is trying to make it easier for everyday Americans to help some of those refugees resettle in the U.S. Today it announced a new private sponsorship program, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This new pilot program is called the Welcome Corps, and the State Department is calling it the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.

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JULIETA NOYES: The Welcome Corps invites Americans to do what we do best - welcoming newcomers, being good guides, neighbors and friends.

ROSE: At a press briefing today, Assistant Secretary of State Julieta Noyes explained how the program will work. Groups of ordinary U.S. citizens and permanent residents can volunteer to sponsor refugees from around the world. These could be faith-based groups, colleges or universities, veterans associations or just a group of friends, as long as they can raise enough money, pass a background check and commit to doing the work.

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NOYES: It's a lot of work involved in sponsoring a refugee - finding schools, helping them find affordable housing, getting their kids signed up for school, helping them find jobs, showing them where the pharmacy is, what bus to take.

ROSE: Until now, the State Department has relied primarily on professional resettlement organizations to do this work. But those groups have been struggling to rebuild after deep cuts to the number of refugees the U.S. admitted under former President Trump. The Welcome Corps will start small, with a goal of resettling 5,000 refugees in the first year. Still, advocates say this new private sponsorship model could mark a significant shift in how the U.S. refugee system works. Sasha Chanoff is with RefugePoint, a nonprofit that has advised the State Department on this new program.

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SASHA CHANOFF: It broadens the opportunities for Americans to welcome refugees here in a new way - more people, more organizations, more geographies and locations that are able to welcome refugees.

ROSE: The Welcome Corps is modeled on earlier efforts to resettle Afghans and Ukrainians through private sponsorship. Last year, we talked to one Afghan family who fled the fall of Kabul and resettled in Alabama, where they were welcomed by a group of sponsors, including Ben Johnson, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.

BEN JOHNSON: I am fully aware that a lot of people I served with were - the Afghans I served with - were killed. So when we got the chance to repay this kind of personal debt, I had to say yes.

ROSE: That is how the Johnsons came to meet Sharifa Ghafoori, her husband and their six kids. He had worked as a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Ghafoori says they had no relatives in the U.S. and no friends. But that changed pretty quickly once they arrived in Huntsville. Their sponsors helped them find a house and learn how to drive.

SHARIFA 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, university. I want to go to university also. I like to learn a lot.

ROSE: That was back in April. Now Sharifa and her husband both have their driver's licenses and jobs, and they've become close friends with Ben and his wife, Julie Johnson. The Johnsons say the experience has been, quote, "life-changing" not only for the families, but for their own family, too. Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SADE SONG, "SOLDIER OF LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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