Advocacy & Allyship for the Afghan Refugee Community
*Viets for Afghans volunteers and refugees gathered in July 2022 to celebrate the end of our Sponsor Circles pilot project. Some faces have been blurred out of an abundance of caution for their safety
OCTOBER 22, 2022
Viets for Afghans began as a grassroots effort just after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, powered by Vietnamese American volunteers in Washington state and beyond who shared a common desire to help Afghans fleeing the war’s aftermath. Many of us felt the pull to act because our own families were once refugees who fled Vietnam in the decades after the Vietnam War ended.
What started as a simple act of allyship – referring people to existing organizations in the government-supported refugee resettlement space – morphed into an ad hoc mutual aid operation that empowered private citizens to work directly with Afghan evacuees who did not have immediate access to a resettlement agency to help them. Viets for Afghans was born out of an acute need to close this gap.
Fourteen months after our project’s inception, Viets for Afghans has demonstrated that dedicated and engaged individuals can make a huge difference when centered on a common cause. We delivered on numerous goals because of our ability to stay nimble and focused in response to an ever-changing humanitarian crisis.
In return, we’ve been profoundly moved by the bonds we have formed with our newly arrived Afghan friends. They inspire us every day with their strength and resolve to remake their lives in a new land, despite all the odds stacked against them. We have witnessed adults take on the challenge of learning English and accepting initial jobs outside their comfort zone. We have experienced firsthand the art and beauty of Afghan hospitality, having shared delicious meals lovingly cooked in our families’ first homes in America. Though we know they carry the pain of sudden departure from their homeland and remain severely traumatized (and in some cases, are nursing physical injuries from their service in the war), we also see this community’s resilience and have so much hope for their future, especially the children.
As we finally come up for air and reflect on the past year, we believe now is the appropriate time to share what our broad coalition of helpers have achieved since we were first moved to action by the stunning imagery and heartbreaking headlines coming out of Afghanistan on and after Aug. 15, 2021. Since then, we’ve learned it’s also important to recognize when the time is right to transition a project’s mission and scope.
Our First Days: Refugees Helping Refugees
In that chaotic period just after the Taliban takeover, Viets for Afghans launched our first ambitious goal on Medium called the 75 Viets for 75 Afghan Refugees Project. The number “75” held personal significance for our Vietnamese community because the fall of Saigon happened on April 30, 1975 – ending America’s long military presence in Vietnam but igniting a humanitarian crisis that would continue for decades. Within days, we successfully recruited more than 75 Vietnamese people willing to pledge their support to help fund or provide emergency housing for at least 75 Afghan evacuees. We started an open-source information guide and encouraged interested parties to follow up with and donate to the Afghan Health Initiative or any one of the refugee resettlement agencies contracted with Washington state.
We quickly realized we would have to be both patient and open to constant pivoting. Our small group of friends started divvying up responsibilities for attending meetings and webinars to understand the situation at the local and national levels. We said yes to interview requests from around the world, explored legal paths for Afghans left behind after the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, connected with other Afghan allies in the region and recruited additional volunteers to join our cause by donating their time, thought leadership and compassion. It was such a fluid situation. All we knew was we had to do something beyond referring people to agencies that were already stretched thin and unable to respond immediately to the sudden volume of interest from volunteers and donors wanting to assist.
Because we understand and appreciate the power of storytelling to raise awareness and move people to action, our collective efforts culminated in dozens of news stories and panel discussions within a six-month span that featured or mentioned Viets for Afghans and our relentless focus on highlighting the humanitarian crises faced by the Afghan diaspora. We were thankful and fortunate the Vietnamese American Non-Governmental Organization Network (VANGO Network) stepped up to provide Viets for Afghans with funding, nonprofit expertise and fiscal sponsorship so that we could take the next step in our journey as a project by refugees for refugees.
Direct Services Through Private Sponsorship
Knowing the impending arrival of Afghans would add stress to an already overloaded and understaffed resettlement system, Viets for Afghans learned in early fall 2021 about Sponsor Circles, a pilot project run by the Community Sponsorship Hub and sanctioned by the U.S. State Department that would allow citizens to privately sponsor Afghans who’d already been evacuated to military bases across the country. Private sponsorship is a successful resettlement policy in other countries like Canada and Australia, but not in the U.S. If we could test-and-learn this approach to welcoming refugees into our community using private resources – and ease the burden on government-funded agencies – we felt we could make a tangible difference and perhaps even advance federal policy to help more refugees in the future.
Within weeks, our first family arrived. And then another, and another. Looking back, we were truly responding to a volatile, emergency situation. In order to provide timely support, we had to create rules and processes as we went. Thanks to the generosity and tireless efforts of hundreds of individuals – especially our sponsor circles consisting of five members in each who went through background checks and developed welcome plans – we were able to convene and mobilize in the midst of a pandemic to show the power of private citizens coming together to help the U.S. welcome our Afghan allies. Key to our early success was partnering with leaders in the existing Afghan community, including MAPS-AMEN and the Afghan American Cultural Association, as we recognized they brought to the table a direct connection to the evacuees and an innate sense of cultural awareness that we lacked.
Here in the Seattle area, Viets for Afghans became an unofficial network that was successful in forming eight circles to support nine families, or 59 refugees. This meant providing three months of sponsorship for each Sponsor Circle, including:
Raising $2,275 through our personal networks to resettle each individual
Supporting each family’s housing needs
Connecting the refugees with public services
Navigating the legal asylum process
Setting up health care appointments
Getting kids into schools and adults into ESL courses
Providing cultural guidance and orientation
Collecting and distributing household goods and clothing
In addition to our Sponsor Circles pilot project here in Washington, we simultaneously explored humanitarian parole options and mobilized people across the country to get involved in big ways and small in their local communities – through raising funds, advocacy work and educating ourselves on our own history and opportunity as Vietnamese refugees and allies.
We started this work knowing the job would never be truly done. We also knew that we were volunteers running one small leg in a very long marathon. As financially and emotionally invested as we became, trusted advisors cautioned us that volunteer mutual aid efforts are not always meant to last forever. Throughout late 2021 and into 2022, Viets for Afghans was in the right place, at the right time.
Assessing Our Impact
A key factor that differentiated Viets for Afghans’ Sponsor Circles pilot over the past year was our commitment to pooling our funds so that sponsors would not feel intimidated or distracted by the pressure to fundraise the mandatory requirement of $2,275 per refugee. The idea behind this was to free up volunteers to focus more of their energy on responding to the real and urgent needs of Afghan families trying to resettle in Washington.
For this, we are extraordinarily grateful to our vast network of friends and donors – including hundreds of individuals, VANGO Network, The Starbucks Foundation, The Schultz Family Foundation, Hello Neighbor Network, and the Welcome Fund from Welcome.us – for entrusting us with the responsibility and flexibility to apply these funds where they were most needed.
Though each sponsor circle personally committed to being involved for three months, we knew that our refugee families would face a long road to stabilization. Since Viets for Afghans is a volunteer-run organization with no full-time staff, we were able to stretch donations to:
Provide an additional three months of rental assistance for each of our official circles, essentially doubling the time they would have to learn how to save and pay for their own housing.
We also set aside additional funds to assist these same families with legal navigation and translation.
To ease the often difficult transition to independence, Viets for Afghans hosted a series of virtual meetings for our sponsors to share best practices and to hear directly from invited experts about existing and soon-to-be-launched resources available for refugees.
In these sessions, we learned some hard truths about the importance of equity and providing our Afghan friends with effective tools for self sufficiency.
No matter how much we wanted to focus on just our own circles, we also needed to be mindful of preventing unnecessary competition among a fast-growing and digitally connected refugee community – comprising individuals with vastly different needs, varying degrees of luck, yet equally deserving of dignity and basic assistance.
So while many of our sponsor circle volunteers have indeed formed special friendships with their families and continue to stay involved long after fulfilling their obligations, it’s gratifying to see them also sharing their knowledge with the broader community, coaching other sponsors and extending their support to refugees beyond the Viets for Afghans network.
However, we fully acknowledge there is so much more work to do. As of October 2022:
Newly resettled Afghans still need help maintaining housing, navigating the job landscape and seeking permanent legal status. They need to be connected with as many opportunities as possible to learn English and to access upward mobility.
Tens of thousands of our Afghan allies remain trapped in Afghanistan and are living in fear of the Taliban. There must be an orderly departure program in place to help those who supported the U.S. presence in Afghanistan over 20 years.
The Afghan Adjustment Act has been in limbo for months. The passage of this federal legislation is critical because it could provide blanket support for tens of thousands of Afghans currently in the U.S. without permanent legal status. For many, the uncertainty is debilitating and hampers their ability to truly resettle.
These are huge issues that no one organization will be able to solve alone. That’s why Viets for Afghans has made it a point to leverage our brand and platforms, including social media, to amplify and uplift the many voices rising from within the Afghan community. Together with our volunteers, we have leveraged the power of storytelling to push for better policies and outcomes for refugees, based not only on our shared lived experience as refugees but also on our more recent adventures in private sponsorship.
Today, the U.S. resettlement system is rebuilding and even expanding beyond non-profit and federally-supported organizations into the private sector. We are proud to be in a position now to pass the baton and share our learnings and resources with others who share our vision to help the more than 3,000 other Afghan refugees who now call Washington state their home.
We’ve landed on three paths forward:
We have a responsibility to share our learnings: We are often asked to share our experiences and expertise with other groups and panels, and we will continue to do so, interest and time permitting. The great news is that in the first six months of 2022, Viets for Afghans had the good fortune of being selected as a capstone study subject by student consultants in the master’s program at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy & Governance. MPA graduate students Elizabeth Kirk, Cacima Lee and Kenney Tran followed our process closely in an effort to understand mutual aid in the 21st century. Anyone can read their final deliverables in the form of an executive summary or the full report.
We have an opportunity to scale our impact by listening to and partnering with our Afghan friends already serving in the resettlement space: We’re excited to announce we’re working with our dear friends at MAPS-AMEN on a new project that allows us to, once again, learn from the Vietnamese refugee experience and share our best practices and learnings in the digital age. Together, we are funding and supporting the development of a dynamic online resource portal for Afghan refugees called the Washington Afghan Resource Center (WA-ARC). Our intention is for this site to become a valuable resource for the thousands of newly arrived Afghan refugees seeking relevant, up-to-date information on topics that are essential to their successful resettlement, including where to find legal services, food and other necessities. The site is soft launching this fall and will be translated from English to Dari and Pashto. We are honored to invest our precious remaining funds toward a cause that will empower any refugee to become more self-sufficient. Just as the groundbreaking Washington State-funded Đất Mới (New Land) was the first Vietnamese-language publication to inform and connect refugees after the Vietnam War, we hope that this portal can serve a similar function for Afghans. So far, Viets for Afghans has directly touched the lives of 59 refugees. This project will extend our reach to help thousands more newcomers.
This fall, we feel the right decision is to sunset Viets for Afghans’ small volunteer-run operations and transition our remaining funds to another organization helping Afghan refugees: Our core team communicated this decision to our network months ago, shortly after we learned that all Afghans living on military bases had been resettled around the country. After fulfilling our final obligations to our seven circles over the summer, we thanked our sponsors for their Herculean efforts and encouraged them to take all they’ve learned from the Viets for Afghans experience into their next endeavors. At the time, we also announced our intention to donate any remaining funds to a trusted partner organization. On Tuesday, Oct. 19, we did just that by presenting a $50,000 check to MAPS-AMEN, the Afghan American-led outreach and advocacy organization (mentioned above) that has partnered with us from the beginning and opened so many doors to the Afghan community. This final gesture puts funds in the hands of people with lived experience and direct relationships with Afghan refugees. May it also be a lasting reminder that the Vietnamese community stepped up and played a role in Afghan resettlement, just as communities across the U.S. welcomed our families in our time of need after the Vietnam War.
Last but not least, we are thrilled to see news stories indicating the U.S. federal government is on track to expand private resettlement opportunities beyond the current Sponsor Circles pilot that Viets for Afghans took part in, and the program would not just be open to Afghan refugees but also to other displaced people from other countries (including perhaps the final stateless refugees from Vietnam!). This is a step in the right direction, and though we are now keenly aware of the power and limits of private citizens stepping in to take on responsibilities usually reserved for government contracted agencies, we’re honored to have played a small role in piloting what works – and what structurally does not work.
We are proud of the legacy we’re leaving and confident that we made a positive difference. Our volunteers represent a diverse group of people juggling jobs and families, yet they continue to amaze us with their independent drive and desire to share best practices, organize and welcome Afghan newcomers.
Our shared lived experience as war survivors and refugees gave us a unique lens through which to view and to assist Afghan refugees. In so many ways, this feels like a full circle moment.
Thank you all for being a part of our journey.
Viets for Afghans