Two months ago, as millions of Ukrainians had been displaced by the Russian invasion, the U.S. government announced a unique new program: Any American can sponsor a Ukrainian for temporary refuge, with room for as many as 100,000 placements. In the past, similar “humanitarian parole” programs were often limited to immediate family.
Most of the first applicants, unsurprisingly, had personal connections to the people they sponsored—friends, family, employees. But a new website is designed to now help connect potential sponsors with Ukrainians they’ve never met. (To participate in the government program, sponsors need to have a match before they apply.)
“There are thousands of additional Americans who want to sponsor, but need help being matched with a Ukrainian beneficiary,” says Nazanin Ash, CEO of Welcome.US, a nonprofit that originally launched last year to help the government resettle tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, and that developed the new tool with help from Goldman Sachs, ServiceNow, Infosys, and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation’s Tech for Refugees Initiative. The organization has partnered with the government to help provide information about the federal program, Uniting for Ukraine.
Sponsors who sign up on the new site, called Welcome Connect, are taken through training modules that explain what sponsorship entails—among other things, sponsors may provide housing and financial support—and other guides and tools. Then they fill out a profile about themselves, including details about their community. Ukrainian citizens can separately fill out profiles, and then will be able to browse through listings of sponsors and reach out if they want to chat with someone. Sponsors won’t be able to look through profiles until they’re contacted. “We didn’t want any of the incentives for a beneficiary to sort of be ‘selling’ themselves to sponsors, because they’re already in such a vulnerable position,” says Rachel Quint, vice president for project operations and strategy at Welcome.US, who helped lead the development of the new platform.
When a beneficiary and sponsor decide that they’re a match, they’re sent to a government site to officially apply for the federal program, which is called Uniting for Ukraine. The government screens both potential sponsors, to make sure that refugees will be safe, and Ukrainians. After approval, refugees can come to the U.S. within 90 days, and then stay temporarily, for up to two years.
In the first two months of the Uniting for Ukraine program, before this new platform existed, the response was already huge, with Americans submitting more than 52,000 applications to the government. “Americans have lined up to sponsor more refugees than the whole of our government systems admitted in each of the last three fiscal years combined,” says Ash. “Which is just an extraordinary indication of Americans’ willingness and capacity to directly help support, sponsor, resettle refugees.” More than 6,000 others had reached out to Welcome.US to say that they wanted to help, but didn’t have a match. While some pairings have tried to connect via Facebook, and Welcome.US had made a few connections directly, the new platform is designed to make the process as safe and easy as possible.
The typical refugee resettlement process can take up to three years; Ash says that Uniting for Ukraine is a good model for how refugees in general could find new homes faster. “In sort of democratizing refugee resettlement, and making it possible for everyday Americans to do this work, we are vastly expanding the capacity of the United States to receive refugees,” she says. “The number of refugees that we can receive are no longer dictated by the government pipes, and what the government systems and the public dollars can bear. They’re now leveraging the extraordinary capacity and willingness of the American people and a much broader range of service, faith, and other institutions, who are willing and able to support and resettle refugees, but weren’t previously given the opportunity or the opening.”