New Welcome Circles Will Support Ukrainians

By Ayelet Parness,

Watch experts from HIAS and JFNA explain how individuals and communities can welcome those fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a May 23 webinar, “Welcome in Action: Jewish Community Support for Ukrainian Newcomers.” (Photo: Ukrainian civilians cross the Ukraine-Poland border at the Krakovets border crossing, March 30, 2022. Credit: AG/HIAS)

With over 6.5 million people having fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on February 24, communities in neighboring countries are taking a leading role in welcoming those displaced by the ongoing crisis. Even thousands of miles away, however, there are many ways for both individuals and communities to support Ukrainians who hope to reach or have already arrived in the U.S., according to experts on HIAS’ May 23 briefing call, “Welcome in Action: Jewish Community Support for Ukrainian Newcomers.”

Uniting for Ukraine — the federal program announced on April 21 through which the U.S. government will accept 100,000 people fleeing the war in Ukraine — is a “private citizen endeavor” that “bypasses, by and large, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” explained Merrill Zack, HIAS vice president for community engagement. Although those arriving through this program are not eligible for traditional resettlement, local resettlement affiliates are working to provide as much support as they can.

“Jewish Family Service agencies, and other resettlement agencies, are going to support them regardless,” said Darcy Hirsh, managing director for public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America. “We, as a federation system… are working to increase staffing at the Jewish Family Service Agencies, whether it’s clinical, case management, other supports, or even volunteer coordination.”

Uniting for Ukraine places the onus for supporting newly arriving Ukrainians, both financially and logistically, on private sponsors. In response, HIAS will be launching a modified version of its Welcome Circles program, originally created in October 2021 in order to resettle Afghan evacuees waiting on U.S. military bases. Through Welcome Circles, a group of 5-8 volunteers provide their new neighbors with the type of assistance usually provided by resettlement professionals for a period of six months, often with support from their broader community.

While the online application portal to start Welcome Circles for Ukrainians is not yet open, Zack encouraged attendees to start thinking about who in their communities might be interested in starting a Welcome Circle. She recommended looking to broader communities, including local Ukrainian organizations, to see who might have connections to Ukrainians looking to come to the U.S. through the Uniting for Ukraine program. 

Those connections will be crucial for the first of the new Welcome Circles, which will focus on supporting Ukrainians known to members of their local community. In the future, HIAS plans to facilitate “blind matching” between Welcome Circles and those who have fled Ukraine but have no sponsor in the U.S. This will allow those without connections in the U.S. or whose connections cannot act as sponsors – due to financial or other constraints – to benefit from the Uniting for Ukraine program.

“The fabric of your community truly plays a role in this initiative,” said Isabel Burton, HIAS senior director of community engagement initiatives. “It’s entirely about building on community strengths as we expand our communities to welcome newcomers.”

Meredith Levy, a HIAS Welcome Circle liaison and a member of the Welcome Circle associated with Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver (read more about the Rodef Shalom Welcome Circle here), spoke about her experiences in resettling a family of Afghan evacuees over the last few months. She describes the experience as being rewarding, complicated, and joyful.

“The main role of a Welcome Circle is to help individuals and families get their feet on the ground by sharing tools and helping to navigate and guide,” said Levy. “You are not adopting them – you are a support for an adult who is an expert on their own life and needs, helping them navigate a new country and new systems.”

Even if you are not looking to create a Welcome Circle, there are still many opportunities to support those impacted by this crisis.

“No matter where you are located, no matter what role you choose to play in this space, no matter whether you have been involved in this kind of effort before, there is something you can do to make an impact in this extraordinarily historic moment,” said Zack in closing.

Want to learn more about how you can help welcome Ukrainian newcomers? Fill out this interest form.

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