Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — As the world grapples with nearly 90 million displaced people, the U.S. is leaning more and more on its citizens to alleviate the country's complex and overburdened immigration system.
And one fledgling nonprofit's unique approach to sponsor-based refugee resettlement is so far, a success.
WelcomeNST, short for "neighborhood support team," is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that matches refugees with communities seeking to support them.
It's a relatively simple answer to the country's incredibly confusing immigration system — find a neighborhood willing to do what government and resettlement agencies typically do.
"The sponsor is essentially acting as the resettlement agency for the family they are sponsoring," said Nate McDonald, deputy director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which houses the Office of Refugee Services.
And in about a year, WelcomeNST has mobilized thousands of people across 90 neighborhoods to facilitate the resettlement of roughly 500 Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. About 65 of those support teams helped resettle Afghans, while 25 were created in the wake of the war in Ukraine — six are located in Utah, the most of any state.
"We have an opportunity to create an organization that enables communities to take the lead," said Liz Davis-Edwards, executive director of WelcomeNST. "The power rests in the community, and that is a really significant shift in the way resettlement has ever been done in the U.S."
The support is fueled in part by a diverse group of religious denominations, whose congregations make up over 60% of the support teams. Roughly half of them are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says Davis-Edwards.
One family is responsible for filing out the application, which requires them to declare their own income as well as the income of the refugee families they are advocating for.
But the various tasks that come with supporting a refugee family — housing, transportation, enrolling the kids in schools, financial support, taking English as a second language classes and navigating the mountain of red tape immigrants face — is divvied up among members of the neighborhood support team.
Resettlement is a lengthy process, and getting approved to come to the U.S. is the first step in a yearslong journey. A neighborhood support team ensures the burden isn't placed on one individual or family, as can happen with a sponsor-based program.
The idea began in 2015 when Davis-Edwards visited a refugee camp in Greece with her family. The camp housed many Afghan refugees, and there Davis-Edwards began building a network of contacts in the resettlement sphere.
Then in 2021, the chaotic U.S. evacuation of Kabul unraveled, with planes transporting thousands of Afghans to safety every day — yet many would sit on military bases for the next year, trying to find a legal pathway to the U.S.
The White House announced a new approach to resettlement, allowing people who meet certain qualifications, including having served in the military, to sponsor Afghans, while factoring in community support to determine the national cap on refugees.
Davis-Edwards turned to her network of immigration advocates. "We had a huge response, we could hardly keep up with it," she said.
We had a huge response, we could hardly keep up with it.
–Liz Davis-Edwards, WelcomeNST
Within months, the nonprofit mobilized about 1,500 people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to create 65 neighborhood support teams — those teams would ultimately resettle over 400 Afghan evacuees to New England.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine and within weeks displaced millions of people, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. On April 21, Biden announced "Uniting for Ukraine," which extended a temporary visa called humanitarian parole to Ukrainians as long as they had a resident to sponsor them.
WelcomeNST established a team in Ukraine, designating a country manager to travel to refugee shelters and present to prospective applicants.
Not every Ukrainian fits the criteria for WelcomeNST. The nonprofit takes a measured approach, trying to find women with children from areas that are being bombed or occupied, and are living in a shelter with nowhere to go. Their husbands also need to be in Ukraine, or legally allowed to leave under the country's conscription law.
"These families don't want a better life, they just want a normal life without the sirens, the rockets and the explosions waking people up in the middle of the night," said Yurii Slepak, a Kyiv native and country manager for WelcomeNST. "Our job here is to find the people that will benefit the most from this program."
These families don't want a better life, they just want a normal life without the sirens, the rockets and the explosions waking people up in the middle of the night.
–Yurii Slepak, country manager for WelcomeNST
Once the group identifies a refugee, it match them with a neighborhood support team and sets up a Zoom call. The refugee, and sponsors, decide whether the match is a good fit. If it is, the resettlement process officially starts, and both parties start filling out the various applications required for Uniting for Ukraine.
The Biden administration recently announced a similar sponsorship program for Venezuelans, who have eclipsed migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as one of the most encountered demographics along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Davis-Edwards says WelcomeNST is now trying to organize teams to sponsor Venezuelan migrants.
"With the 100 million displaced people around the globe, expanded significantly by the war in Ukraine, and winter right around the corner, the need to provide refuge to Ukrainians is more urgent than ever," she said.
Anyone interested in forming a neighborhood support team can register on the nonprofit's website.