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The circumstances of refugee resettlement processes often lead to a scattered, disorganized mess of trying to achieve a lot of goals in a small amount of time. For example, at the Center for Changing Lives, an agency of Lutheran Social Service (LSS), the resettlement agents don't get word of families and individuals who are coming to Minnesota until two weeks before they arrive. In those short two weeks, they have to find appropriate housing and furnish it, often with only the furniture and goods that have been donated. And after those two weeks, there are always new families and new issues to work on fixing. For both LSS and Arrive Ministries, another resettlement branch based in the Twin Cities, the organization only has the jurisdiction to care for and provide services for refugee families for their first ninety days in the U.S. Following this, the new immigrants are expected to cope on their own. However, with difficulties ranging from post-traumatic stress to learning how to drive, or attempting to become a citizen, it is nearly impossible to claim that self-sufficiency is easy when one is entirely starting over, and after only ninety days in a new country. As such, this is where sponsorship programs come in.
What does it mean to be a sponsor?
Depending on the organization they are affiliated with, volunteering and signing up as a "sponsor" or "mentor" can mean a variety of things. However, it is evident that sponsoring families is often more successful when a group, community, or congregation volunteers, rather than an individual. As such, just as the ethic of helping and volunteerism has shaped a network of Christian aid agencies, it has shaped a community of churches and congregations that sponsor refugees.
What, then, does the help entail?
The Minnesota Council of Churches defines the responsibilities of the co-sponsor as three separate tasks: The Empowerment Responsibility, which consists of assisting with material skills and needs to help an individual become self-sufficient; The Friend Responsibility, consisting of emotional support and friendship in adjusting to a new society; and The Advocate Responsibility, which is "Ensuring just and decent treament for the newcomer in this society and promoting respect for the cultural heritage and identity of the refugee."1 These three different tasks are effective representations of how being a sponsor is important, and necessitate activities ranging from aiding with essential skills, like filling out forms and learning to drive; to creating space for new expressions of culture, like celebrations; to simple conversations and sharing stories. The role of being a sponsor is a commitment: of time, of energy, of having the patience to share cultural nuance that seem natural to oneself.
In each guide that the local VOLAGs put out to give advice to sponsors, there are distinct instructions regarding cultural sensitivity and respect. This is perhaps one of the most important parts of being an “aid” to someone who has immigrated to America: managing to be helpful while at the same time transcending the stereotype of the pitying, more affluent and charitable citizen. When encountering the refugee experience, it is easy to focus on the hard tales, the dark and harrowing experiences that have defined and shaped people who “need help.” This is neither helpful to the refugee nor to the culture of pity in America. Instead, it is important to regard the people one is aiding with respect, friendship, and advocacy in a way that helps them to maintain their dignity and pride: in a way that recognizes the humanity in each person.
Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services, Refugee Co-Sponsorship Guide. (Minnesota: Refugee Services Program, 2010). Page 58. ↩