A family of Afghan evacuees arrives in Massachusetts next week, one of the first to be resettled thanks to a new program that allows private citizens to band together and help the displaced through a so-called sponsorship circle.
Rebecca Leventhal and Sarah Muncey are among a group of eight Greater Boston residents who jointly applied to be part of the program. Next week, they will welcome a couple and three children, becoming the first sponsorship circle to receive a family in Massachusetts.
Leventhal, Muncey and their six other circle participants understand the seriousness of helping people start their lives over in a place far from home.
Muncey said there was some kind of Jewish mantra that says if you save a life, you save the world.
“I know we are not saving lives. I remember it won’t be a drop in the bucket for this family,” she said. “But in this time of global crisis, everyone has to look at themselves and say, ‘If it’s not me, who is it?’ You know, ‘If we don’t do this, who’s going to?’ That’s why we do it.”
President Joe Biden’s administration launched the National Sponsorship Circle program last fall to supplement resettlement agencies under the number of evacuees they were suddenly receiving when the U.S. military surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban. The State Department created the program with a coalition of organizations, including React DC, which helps Leventhal and Muncey’s group, Home for Refugees and Welcome.US. After months of preparation, the US government and nonprofit organizations gave the blessing to match refugee families with sponsorship circles.
Sponsorship circles have so far hosted 415 Afghan evacuees in 29 states, according to the Community Sponsorship Hub coalition, which oversees applications. Leventhal and Muncey hope more Bay Staters will consider committing their time and resources to the effort.
“We can only imagine what they did to get here,” Leventhal said. Thousands of Afghans, many of whom helped the US military interpret and plan, had to flee their country quickly last summer, or risk death after the Taliban took over.
Most of the participants in the Sponsorship Circle were teenagers at the time of 9/11 and the start of the war in Afghanistan, and some are feeling the brunt of the impact of the American intervention on the lives of people there.
“I feel like we let them down as a nation in how we approached 9/11, the longevity of the war, the kind of darkness of the end goal – it felt like we had to do it,” Muncey said. .
Leventhal and Muncey met through political activism and are no strangers to connecting people in need with social services. Leventhal started a platform on providing care for people with dementia, and Muncey is co-chair and co-founder of the nonprofit Neighborhood Villages. They are both Jewish, but other members of their sponsorship circle come from different faith and belief systems.
They take seriously respect for the culture and faith of the evacuees, as well as their privacy.
“Our role in this care is to enable their success and their independence. It does not give us any rights to information about their lives or to direct their lives,” Leventhal said. “It’s really about helping them lead independent lives in the United States”
“I feel like we let them down as a nation in how we approached 9/11, the longevity of the war…it felt like we had to.”
To be approved as a Sponsoring Circle, a group must have at least five members who live in the same area.
The local eight-person group had individual background checks carried out and Muncey completed an hour-long online training on behalf of the group covering issues such as the different visas that might apply and the types of social services that the group had to provide.
Circle members must agree to help for at least the first 90 days of a newcomer’s resettlement, which may involve responsibilities such as helping them find housing, enrolling children in schools, connecting them with English lessons and basic necessities like food and clothing. All of those details — who volunteered to do what and which nonprofits they wanted to connect with — went into a Google spreadsheet.
Housing was a difficult task to understand.
“It’s like a chicken and egg problem. You fill out a plan that’s supposed to be very specific, but you don’t know when you’re going to start a family and what the family will be like,” Leventhal said. “For example, we’re not going to rent an apartment for four people only to find out they don’t come for three months and they’re actually eight people.”
Fortunately, Muncey’s husband works in real estate and was able to put the group in touch with housing options. They connected with a foundation that helps refugees get affordable housing.
The Circle connected with a few Afghan families for advice on things like culturally appropriate grocery lists. They also hope to work with Jewish Vocational Services to connect newcomers to English classes and learning opportunities for work.
Sponsorship Circle participants must raise at least $2,275 for each person they wish to help. Muncey and Leventhal’s group has pooled more than $11,000 of its own funds in an escrow account and will raise funds in the future.
“We know there will be a financial obligation beyond that. Like $10,000 won’t get you started in America,” Muncey said. After filing a claim, they met with React DC, which is involved in providing reinstallation assistance. The application was accepted a few weeks ago.
The circle learned a few days ago that their family would be arriving next week. They have rented a 2 bedroom apartment with a lease start date of May 1 and are fitting it out over the weekend for a couple with three children, ages 2, 4 and 8. Several other Afghan families live in the same compound, and the school system’s children will likely go to other Afghan students.
The family will be met at Logan Airport by circle sponsors with welcome signs and minivans. Muncey hopes the family can find their new apartment and hometown “welcoming and familiar”.