In February of this year, my colleague Sara and I traveled to New Haven, Connecticut to join a co-sponsor team made up of a coalition of congregations. JCARR (Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement) and DARA (Danbury Area Refugee Assistance) had been a crucial support system for refugees and asylees for many years. Witnessing firsthand the partnerships that had been built and the lessons that had been learned to make the process of welcoming refugees into communities smoother was truly eye-opening.
Our affiliate, Integrated Refugees and Immigrant Services, had provided basic training for members of JCARR and DARA to equip them with the necessary skills to carry out their work. Now, eight years on, the co-sponsorship teams have continued on to engage closely with the communities they help as there are more people fleeing the Ukraine war and many arrived as part of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The teams with the help of IRIS leadership established task force members from the volunteers whom we sat down with to listen to their experiences.
During our visit, we heard many stories that illustrated the critical role of the co-sponsorship team and the volunteers of the New Haven community who dedicated their time and energy to help newly arrived refugees. One moving story that stood out was when a new volunteer stayed at the hospital with a sick Iraqi refugee for several hours and sat by their bedside until a couple of hours before the volunteer had to catch a flight. This act of kindness helped the volunteer see volunteering entirely different from what he had imagined. That hospital experience made him commit to his volunteering, and years on he still helps New Haven’s refugees through volunteering with JCARR
Rabbi Miacheal Farbman of Temple of Emanuel in New Haven aptly put it when he said, “You stop somebody on the streets of New Haven, and with very few exceptions, people really want to do something good for the world.” This sentiment was echoed by every other volunteer at JCARR and DARA whom we met, as well as the newly arrived refugees. One volunteer mentioned that she got involved in volunteering after reading a story in a local paper about a group forming to support refugees leaving Syria. She had no prior knowledge about the resettlement process, but after receiving training from IRIS, she got involved. Today, she talks about the refugee resettlement process to her relatives and friends and it changes everyone’s prior blurred understanding of the system.
For every volunteer we met and interviewed, sponsorship meant different things to them. One volunteer found it gratifying to be able to help ease the transition for refugees into a new culture.
Hearing their stories and seeing the impact that the volunteers had made on the lives of refugees was deeply touching.
Sitting in the living room of a house that the volunteers had found for Afghan clients, surrounded by the co-sponsorship team and the Afghan family they had helped from nothing to having a home, driver’s licenses, and the two boys in school, gave me a newfound appreciation for the invaluable work of these volunteers. One of the clients shared that without these volunteers, it would have been difficult to navigate their new city. As one volunteer aptly put it, “The act of volunteering provided me with an abundance of practical, hands-on experience.”
Abdi Iftin is the Communications Specialist at CWS.