Welcome Circles Bolster Resettlement Capacity at Critical Moment

By Ayelet Parness, HIAS.org

Congregants from Congregation Rodef Shalom welcome a family of Afghan evacuees through the HIAS Welcome Circles program. (Hannah Baldwin)

It looked like a pandemic homecoming. A small crowd gathered to greet an incoming plane at Denver International Airport on February 2. Families were wearing medical masks and carrying homemade signs in bright marker that read “Welcome to Denver,” “Welcome Friends,” and “Welcome Home” in English and Dari. Rather than reuniting with old friends, though, the assembled congregants of Congregation Rodef Shalom were there to greet their new neighbors – the second family of Afghans to be resettled through HIAS’ new Welcome Circles program

“We as a community have been advocating for immigration and speaking out for refugees for years,” said Rabbi Rachel Kobrin, Congregation Rodef Shalom's rabbi and a member of the Welcome Circle. “This was an immediate way to put our values and our words into action in a concrete way that would actually help people on the ground.” 

HIAS’ Welcome Circles are part of a new program authorized by the Biden Administration in October 2021 in order to expand the United States’ capacity to resettle the over 76,000 Afghans evacuated during Operation Allies Welcome. The program, which is administered by Community Sponsorship Hub, allows private citizens and communities to be directly involved in the resettlement and integration of their new neighbors for the first time in decades. At least five individuals form a circle and, with certain legal guardrails, agree to take on responsibilities usually administered by resettlement professionals. 

There are currently 32 certified HIAS Welcome Circles, 25 of which have been matched with the Afghan families they will assist. As of February 16, 21 families have arrived within HIAS’ network. The first family welcomed through the program arrived in Maryland on January 27, met by circle members from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Since then, Welcome Circle families have reached communities in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto, Calif.; Rockville, Md.; South Orange and Englewood, N.J.; Milwaukee; Cincinnati; Denver; St. Louis; Durham, N.C.; and Binghamton and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The remaining families are expected to arrive in the next few days.

"It is amazing to see the circles mobilizing in this way, to welcome Afghan newcomers with generosity and dignity,” said Isabel Burton, HIAS’ senior director of community engagement programs and initiatives.  “We are inspired – but we are not surprised – by the way the Jewish community is coming together with open hands and hearts to participate in this project."

The responsibilities that communities undertake when joining this program are manifold. For members of Welcome Circles, the most exciting moment of preparation is often getting an apartment key for their new arrivals. That’s because crucially, circles must secure housing and provide funds for food, clothing, utilities, and other necessities. 

Less obvious, but over time, equally vital, are the many ways that circle members can help guide Afghan evacuees as they adjust to their new lives: finding jobs, enrolling the children in schools, finding cultural connections in a new city, obtaining driver’s licenses and social security cards, accessing benefits and legal assistance, and numerous other aspects of setting up life in a new country. HIAS’ Welcome Circles commit to providing six months’ support to the family with whom they are matched, well beyond the 90-day minimum required by the national model. By the end of that time, the goal is for the resettled family to be economically self-sufficient.