(RNS) — As we gather together with friends and loved ones this holiday season, about 35,000 Afghan evacuees are still waiting on U.S. military bases for the chance to be resettled in communities where they can start their new lives.
Each of our organizations has deployed staff members to the military bases to help with processing and welcoming Afghan families. They have told us about the inspiring resilience, strength and optimism they have encountered there. They have told us about a family with three young children and a baby on the way, who barely made it onto one of the last planes out with only one suitcase among them. They have told us about the sisters who chose freedom at the high cost of leaving their parents behind. We have shared meals and prayers with them as they reflect on the hope they hold for a new future free from fear.
Military bases were never meant to be a long-term solution. It is time for these families to finally start the next chapter of their lives in their new homes. As the leaders of three of the nation’s nine resettlement agencies, we know resettling these newest neighbors will require all the resources, creativity and compassion the United States has to offer. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for refugee resettlement in this country.
For decades, resettlement agencies have supported refugees selected to start their new lives in the United States. These refugees are often the most vulnerable: women heads of households in cultures where men traditionally serve as protectors, orphaned and separated children and persecuted LGBTQ people, among others. Our organizations support these new Americans through every step of their journey, from welcoming them with open arms at the airport to providing ongoing career and language support as they adjust to their new home.
After nearly five years of historically low refugee arrivals, our local partners are just now rebuilding. They are hiring staff; contacting landlords, employers and schools; and otherwise getting ready to welcome Afghan families into their communities. While they are working around the clock to prepare and welcome Afghan families, we simply can’t do it all on our own.
Across the nation, Americans from all backgrounds must come together to welcome Afghan families.
Refugee resettlement has always been a public-private partnership, relying on the generosity of American communities who come together and welcome newcomers. Each of our organizations has always harnessed the people power of volunteers and community support networks to ensure each arriving refugee has what he or she needs to rebuild and thrive.
As we enter the season of generosity and sharing with our own family and friends, we urge Americans to consider opening their hearts and homes to Afghan families in need of support. Together with our agencies, individuals can volunteer to welcome families and help them acclimate to their new lives. Property owners can provide safe and affordable housing, one of our most urgent needs.
Groups of private citizens can also join together in “sponsorship circles” to sponsor Afghan evacuees during the initial resettlement process, helping Afghan refugees with basic services during their first 90 days in their new home. Among other things, these groups will help secure housing, provide necessities like furniture and clothing and assist in accessing government benefits such as schooling, food and health care.
Working in close concert with traditional resettlement, this initiative as well as rapidly growing our existing volunteer and community sponsorship efforts will help us quickly and securely create an expansive network of support to resettle Afghan families in their new homes. Our deeply experienced professional staff will help guide the sponsorship circles, community sponsors and volunteers and set them up for success.
How we respond and welcome Afghan evacuees today will have implications for decades. Together we can ensure each newcomer gets a warm welcome and the best start possible, putting them on a path to quickly becoming contributing members of our communities and securing a bright future for all of us.
(Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS. Richard L. Santos is the president and CEO of Church World Service. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)