U.S. Has New Way to Resettle Afghan Refugees, and Vietnamese Americans in Washington Answer Call to Help


In August, Son Duong and his 18-year-old son, Nathan, watched a TV report of desperate Afghans fleeing Kabul on a military plane. Nathan saw his dad jump a little. He was having a flashback.

"Oh my God! I was in that position," the older Duong said he was thinking. A 52-year-old artist who creates Trader Joe's signage and lives in Monroe, he had been on a similar plane 46 years ago.

Saigon was falling. He and his brother, playing in an alley, were swept up by their father, who had suddenly arrived home: "It's time to go."

"Go where?" the 5-year-old thought.

Son remembers commotion in the street as they reached the end of the alley, then his dad pushing him through the window of a crowded bus, and being pushed back out when it became clear  the bus was stalled. They walked on to an American military base near the airport, where in a bowling alley he was reunited with his mom, sister, uncle and aunt.

A cavernous, seatless plane with red and orange lights — seemingly everywhere, to a child's eye — came to take the refugees away.

Seeing the images of evacuating Afghans decades later, Nathan was the first in his family to get the idea: Maybe we should help. He got in touch with Viets for Afghans, a newly formed group of Vietnamese Americans in the Seattle area driven by their own families' experiences to support this newest wave of refugees.

Now, the Duong family and several other members of Viets for Afghans plan to participate in a federal program launched last month  that could radically change how some refugees are resettled. With tens of thousands of Afghan refugees stuck on U.S. military bases, many waiting for overwhelmed agencies to bring them into communities around the country, the State Department is inviting private citizens to form "sponsor circles."

Just like resettlement agencies, which will continue to do this work, the circles of five or more people commit to helping refugees get housing, jobs, furniture, clothes, government benefits and whatever else they need to start a new life. The circles also must raise $2,275 for each sponsored individual to replace money typically provided by the federal government.

The program is just for Afghan refugees, who can choose to be resettled by agencies or private sponsors, and is a precursor to a larger private sponsorship effort the Biden administration plans to start next year. It is modeled on similar programs in Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

Washington is projected to be among the top five locations for Afghan resettlement, because of a significant community of Afghan Americans already here, said state Refugee Coordinator Sarah Peterson. Roughly 1,000 Afghan refugees have come since July, and at least 1,500 more are expected over the next three months, she said.

Locally, the sponsor circle program has been greeted with excitement, as well as questions and concerns.

"I love the idea of getting the private sector and individuals and community organizations to really step up and help address this critical gap that we have right now," said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, and a former Afghan refugee who came to the U.S. as a child.  "The refugee agencies, you know, they're fantastic, but they're being tested in unprecedented ways."

Afzali, whose organization is partnering with the state to welcome Afghan refugees, has been working with the Viets for Afghans circle, and said she believes the group is proceeding thoughtfully. At the same time, she worries that some sponsors might be unprepared for this level of responsibility and wants to know more about how the program will work before encouraging others to become sponsors.

Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, has put his concerns more sharply.

"You're basically taking really well-meaning people without significant supervision and in most cases with very little knowledge, and asking them to do the work of a professional," Berkovitz said. Canada has had decades to build a private sponsorship system, he added, advocating a go-slow approach that relies on coordination between volunteers and experienced agencies.

Matt Misterek, a spokesperson for Lutheran Community Services Northwest, said his agency already coordinates with many volunteers who supplement its work. Having an organizational backbone gives refugees support that volunteers on their own possibly couldn't, he said. For instance, with money from its church network and fundraising and on top of federal dollars, Lutheran Community Services helps refugees for six months to a year. The sponsor circle program asks for a three-month commitment.

But everything doesn't necessarily go smoothly with agencies, many of which scaled down as the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions and are now having to rapidly rebuild.

Navid Hamidi, executive director of the Afghan Health Initiative in Kent, said his organization has been paying for some refugees' groceries because of snags in getting food stamps they're entitled to, problems agency caseworkers have been unable to resolve.

Danielle Grigsby, co-founder of the Community Sponsorship Hub, a nonprofit charged by the federal government with managing sponsor applications, said there's an extensive vetting process, including a background check, a knowledge test based on online curriculum, and review of a resettlement plan that applicants must submit.

The government will not directly monitor sponsors. But Grigsby said sponsors must file 30- and 90-day reports to the Hub and organizations it is working with, and the government will be notified of any problems.

Grigsby also said some organizations,  including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a national resettlement agency that announced last week it was launching a network of at least 100 sponsor circles, will provide ongoing support to sponsors. HIAS is asking sponsors in the network to commit to six months, not three.

"I started out as a skeptic but I have become a true believer," said HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield, reasoning there is no other alternative right now to resettle Afghans at the massive scale needed. Even Berkovitz, after finding out the circles would be used in a limited way, not to resettle the huge number of Afghans waiting on bases, said he was reassured.

For those in the Viets for Afghans sponsor circle, it's a return to the past in more ways than one. Certainly, the Afghan evacuation triggers memories, some deeply traumatic.

Uyen Nguyen, co-owner of the Seattle restaurant Nue, lost her mother and two siblings during a boat escape from Vietnam in 1985, when she was 10.

The call for private sponsors — not unprecedented, actually —  brings back much more positive memories.

When 125,000 Vietnamese refugees started arriving in 1975, some private organizations existed to help them, but the formal resettlement structure we have now — with the federal government contracting with nine national agencies that in turn have hundreds of local affiliates — was not in place, according to Peterson, the state refugee coordinator.

Washington, in particular, needed resettlement help in a hurry. After California's governor at the time, Jerry Brown, gave a reluctant welcome to thousands of refugees sent to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Washington Gov. Dan Evans sent state officials to the military base to invite 1,500 to come here, recalled one of those officials, Ed Burke.

At the base, Burke, a 31-year-old Vietnam War veteran who directed Washington's veteran affairs office, met Binh Duong, a multilingual interpreter who had worked with the American military and is Son's father.

"We hit if off immediately," said Burke, now retired in New Mexico. Binh Duong worked closely with Burke to sort through who wanted to come to Washington.

The state ran newspaper ads and public service announcements asking individuals, church groups and other community organizations to integrate the newcomers, Burke said. He and then-wife Linda, a 25-year-old school district employee, sponsored Binh Duong's family themselves, renting an Olympia apartment for them, taking them grocery shopping and for a time, Ed Burke said, bringing Binh to work every day at a new state job in social services. The Duongs, in return, were always inviting the couple to dinner, Linda Burke recalled from California.

Linda and Ed Burke both say the relationship with the Duong family and other Vietnamese refugees was a highlight of their lives.

Son didn't know about Ed Burke's pivotal role in refugee resettlement. What he remembers is the warmth and openness of the couple he called his "American mom and dad."

"They would always be there," dropping by with toys and clothes, Son said. "I would love to do exactly the same thing that was done for us." He worried, though, about having enough time.

"It's daunting," said My-Nga Le, another member of the Viets for Afghans sponsor circle,    "but we are more than up to the challenge."

Already, she has raised $15,000 from relatives, nearly what the group would need to sponsor a family of six or seven.

Le has a flexible schedule built around volunteering and took the lead filling out the sponsor application. One night this month, she went through it on Zoom during the first meeting of those who had joined the circle so far: Le, Nguyen, Son Duong, Nathan Duong, who plans to help until he goes to Boston University in January, and Jefferey Vu, a 31-year-old Boeing engineer who credits his dad's family's onetime sponsors as paving the way for "everything we have now."

The five discussed their spending plan: $2,200 a month seemed about right for housing but how much would it cost to buy food for a large family? Furniture wouldn't be a problem; Nguyen said she knows people eager to donate.

She also suggested a job wouldn't be hard to come by, given employers' urgent search for workers at the moment. There might be complications, however. Nguyen said her desire to hire Syrian refugees at her restaurant in the past had been thwarted because they wouldn't work with pork, a forbidden meat in Islam. That might be the case for some Afghan refugees.

Nguyen also brought up potential conflicts of interest if she or others found jobs at their own businesses for those they sponsor. What if an employment issue arose?

One of the biggest open questions surrounded recruiting a member of the area's existing Afghan American community, someone who knows the language and culture, to be part of their circle.  Le had talked to a candidate, who had relatives at a base the circle could ask to sponsor.

You can request a specific family, though there is no guarantee.

Last week, that person pulled out; he had decided that he and his siblings in the area could resettle the relatives themselves. Le quickly found another Afghan American wanting to join and have his family sponsored: Ghulam Mohmand, a Port of Seattle employee who lives in Kent, and a board member of the Afghan American Cultural Association.

Mohmand has a nephew at Fort Dix in New Jersey who wants to bring his wife and four kids to the Seattle area, given the help his Kent relative is ready to offer. But the government has said it wants to send his family to be resettled by an agency in Maine.    

"He would be all alone," Mohmand said, especially difficult since his nephew uses crutches after being shot by insurgents in Afghanistan.

When Le explained the sponsor circle idea to Mohmand, he was enthusiastic. "I became so emotional," he said, upon learning of the shared experiences of the Vietnamese Americans members.

With Mohmand on board, the Viets for Afghans circle submitted its application Tuesday.