WATCH: Three Faiths, One Family

By Ayelet Parness

WATCH: In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, St. Louisans from three faith communities come together to welcome a family of evacuees and help them get settled in the United States. (SideXSide Studios for HIAS)

On January 19, the Biden administration announced the launch of Welcome Corps, a new initiative that will allow Americans to privately sponsor refugees from around the world.

Private resettlement initiatives are not new to HIAS. For over a year, it has worked with communities throughout the U.S. and Europe to create Welcome Circles: groups of 5-8 people who, with guidance from HIAS and often with assistance from their broader community, provide financial, resettlement, and emotional support to newcomers for six months until they reach self-sufficiency. The program was developed in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, in an effort to help the unprecedented number of Afghan evacuees who had come to the U.S. settle in new communities more quickly.

A new HIAS video, “Three Faiths, One Family,” tells the story of three faith communities in St. Louis —  Congregation Shaare Emeth, Parkway United Church of Christ, and the Turkish American Society of Missouri (TASOM) — who came together to create one such Welcome Circle. Together, the members of Intertwine Interfaith welcomed Anisa* and Samir’s* family and helped them get a new start.

“When you walk into our meeting, you will see ordinary people, all of them putting their availability and skill sets together to help someone start their life here,” said Ali Durhan, outreach coordinator at TASOM and a Welcome Circle member. “I was working on how the family might feel culturally, for example, halal foods and how they are going to pray.”

The circle’s hard work has paid off, with the family laying down strong roots in St. Louis. Anisa, who was a doctor in Afghanistan, is employed at a local hospital and is learning to drive — something she could not do in her home country. The children are in school and thriving, and the oldest child in the family has taken an active role in welcoming a new neighbor from Ukraine to his school.

“Everything that a person, a family [needs], they help us with,” said Anisa. “All of the team, they work with us very hard. We found a new family in St. Louis.”

“When you walk into our meeting, you will see ordinary people putting their availability and skill sets together to help someone start their life here."

Ali Durhan

Intertwine Interfaith Welcome Circle member

Today, this model has been adapted in both the U.S. and Europe to help people displaced by the war in Ukraine. In the U.S., circles are now matched with Ukrainians in need of sponsorship through RUTH, a proprietary platform that considers refugees’ resettlement preferences and special circumstances and uses an algorithm to recommend optimal sponsors.

“RUTH makes it possible for HIAS to bring a larger group of displaced Ukrainians to the United States — not just those who have connections here,” said Alicia Wrenn, HIAS’ senior director for resettlement and integration. “The matching algorithm makes the relocation process faster and more transparent, while also allowing us to make those connections in a way that’s safe and centers the preferences of the beneficiaries.”

To date, communities across the U.S. have formed 34 circles for Afghans and 63 circles for Ukrainians. These circles have already helped a total of 266 displaced people settle in communities across the country, with a further 60 displaced people from Ukraine matched with new communities. In 11 European countries, 12 circles have assisted over 300 people displaced by the war in Ukraine.

The program still needs more communities to volunteer to form Welcome Circles, as HIAS continues to assist those displaced by the current crisis in Ukraine and prepares to integrate Welcome Corps into the program. In conjunction with HIAS’ network of local resettlement partner agencies, Welcome Circles enable the organization to help more refugees join communities across the U.S. and create opportunities for everyday Americans to play a meaningful, direct role in this process.

“Welcome Circles like Intertwine Interfaith represent the best of our country,” said Merrill Zack, HIAS’ vice president of community engagement. “They show us what people can accomplish when they drop their barriers and assumptions and come together.”

*Pseudonyms used to protect clients’ safety.

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