Considering that so much of the political discourse in the U.S. includes a contentious debate about immigration, it is even more remarkable that, twice in the past year, American policy and the American people have turned their attention to welcoming substantial populations of newcomers — first from Afghanistan and now from Ukraine.
On the heels of a massive resettlement of nearly 80,000 Afghan allies to the United States, President Biden has committed to providing refuge for as many as 100,000 people fleeing Ukraine, a fraction of the millions who have been driven from their homes in the last month. The effort to resettle Afghans — which is still underway and requires continued support — has taught us important lessons about how Americans can help support Ukrainians and other populations in need of refuge.
There are important differences between the Afghan and Ukrainian crises. In the first instance, our Afghans allies are being permanently resettled in the United States. Ukrainians, in turn, may hope to return to their homeland and rebuild their country and lives. Many neither want to be called “refugees” nor to be permanently resettled in America. For most, the United States will be a temporary haven. But what both populations have in common — like the many displaced communities that came before them — is that they arrive with almost nothing and need our support as they begin to build lives as our neighbors.
The Afghan refugee crisis has taught us that the American people respond in droves when asked to help in concrete ways. For example, when Americans learned that thousands of Afghan newcomers could go into debt to secure flights from U.S. military bases to their new communities, Welcome.US put out a call alongside Miles4Migrants for donated miles and cash to fund flights to safety. The American people and many companies responded, providing free flights to Afghan newcomers who needed them. We’re now mobilizing a similar campaign for Ukrainians.
Through the technology of Airbnb.org, more than 20,000 Afghan newcomers have been provided housing as they transition to more permanent arrangements. In response to the crisis in Ukraine, Airbnb has committed to providing shelter for 100,000 people in need — and thousands of Americans have contributed cash or housing for displaced families.
A network of colleges has banded together to offer free tuition, scholarships, language training and credentialing for Afghans, and the Welcome.US Employment Exchange hosts over 40,000 jobs from companies for newcomers to rebuild their lives.
Americans and companies provided essential goods such as diapers, beds, clothing, food, cell phones and laptops to ease the transition of those coming to America, and Americans donated millions of dollars to the Welcome Fund, which distributed grants to frontline organizations supporting Afghans across the country. Thousands of Americans dedicated their time to volunteer with resettlement agencies or directly sponsor refugees.
All these resources can be mobilized for Ukrainians, too — and all who need refuge here. Once again, Americans have proved that the culture of welcoming others is core to our national identity, and there is an act of welcoming that each of us can undertake. Already, the Ukrainian American community is mobilizing. Americans want to help, and they are working with Welcome.US to ensure that those who need a haven here will find one.
As this hopeful work has progressed, it has uncovered opportunities to improve America’s resettlement system. There are nine agencies that do the lion’s share of refugee resettlement, but we know that when we tap American compassion our collective capacity to welcome is far greater. The infrastructure to support asylees and newcomers with non-refugee pathways to the United States hardly exists. And there are enormous obstacles facing those who seek refuge here from various parts of the world, especially our own hemisphere.
The good news is that we are building capacity to help with resettlement of all newcomers. New networks have stepped forward to support the work of welcoming others, including Lions Clubs International, Samaritan’s Purse, and Islamic Relief USA, along with a host of refugee, community, and veteran-led service organizations. It is possible for friends and neighbors to organize themselves into sponsorship circles and support individual families. Americans have the tools and energy for this work, and we can engage them effectively.
In the end, the work of welcoming Afghans, Ukrainians or others needing refuge in the United States is as much about us as it is about the needs of our new neighbors. Many Americans see their families’ lived experience in the turmoil that forces people from their homes. Others see welcoming as an opportunity to strengthen our communities with the skills, energy and contributions that newcomers bring. Whatever the reason, welcoming others is what we do when Americans are at our best.
Nazanin Ash is CEO of Welcome.us. Cecilia Munoz and John Bridgeland are co-chairs of Welcome.us and former directors of the White House Domestic Policy Council for President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, respectively.