Chris George, Executive Director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven. Joe Amon | Connecticut Public

More than 2 million refugees await resettlement around the world, according to data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Events of the past year in Afghanistan and Ukraine have added to the longstanding needs of refugees from regions in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas who are seeking protection in the U.S.

This year, the State Department launched a new program that allows individual Americans to privately sponsor refugees being resettled in the U.S. It’s called “Welcome Corps,” and Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, says it’s a game-changer.

“It’s going to dramatically open up the doors of refugee resettlement to thousands of Americans who are really eager to participate.”

IRIS is one of six government-contracted agencies helping to stand up the new program for private citizens who want to take on the responsibility of resettling a refugee family.

IRIS primarily deals with refugees who have been selected overseas by the Department of State, vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and invited to come to the U.S. The agency’s job is to welcome them and get them off to a good start.

That used to mean moving refugees to communities not too far away from IRIS case managers and volunteers. But George said during the Syrian crisis in 2016, things changed.

“Volunteers were knocking down our doors saying ‘We want to help out, we want to do more than write a check. We want to do more than donate used furniture. We want to do more than just the pieces of resettlement like tutoring a kid after school or helping somebody find a job’,” George said volunteers wanted to do everything — and they asked him for help.

IRIS looked to Canada, which had years of experience training private citizens to sponsor refugees. The agency began training volunteers in communities within 50 miles of New Haven and were able to successfully resettle 300 refugees over a two-year period. 

Ann O’Brien of Woodbury helped to resettle a Syrian family in Connecticut. Now she works for IRIS and leads the agency’s role in the new Welcome Corps program. She and George have been leading zoom gatherings for Americans nationwide interested in sponsoring refugee families.

O’Brien said she’s amazed by the number of people interested in volunteering.

“Our first general information session had 5,000 people sign up. And then the next one had another 5,000. And the next week had another 5,000!”

Attendance has slowed somewhat as people learn what it takes to be approved as a Welcome Corps sponsor. Volunteers must raise funds, locate housing, help refugees find jobs, enroll in health care and education.

Susan Suhr co-leads a group in the Waterbury area that has resettled families from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. She coordinates a team of 24 to 36 volunteers to support each new refugee family. Many arrive with nothing, she says, and speak little if any English.

“We walk beside them. We give them guidance. We help them. We don’t do it for them. We teach them how to do it in our country,” Suhr said.

“What every refugee wants from the very minute they leave their homeland is control of their lives back,” said Ann O’Brien.

That takes time, she acknowledged, and isn’t easy. Refugees who held important jobs in their home countries may struggle as they start over. Some communities may be more or less welcoming.

But Chris George said with the right support, the private sponsorship model works.

“There are people all over the country who would love to have a project that brings people from all parts of their community together, get some training and welcome a family that has fled persecution,” George said. “I mean, it doesn’t get better than that.”

Welcome Corps aims to resettle 5,000 refugees across the U.S. in its first year. Families start arriving in April.

This story was originally published March 20, 2023, by Connecticut Public.