In a letter that went viral last week, a six-year-old in New York asked President Obama to bring him a young Syrian refugee. “Can you please go get him and bring him to my home?” the boy wrote in block letters. “We will give him a family and he will be our brother." It was adorable in part because it seemed impossible.
Soon, however, "adopting" refugees will be a real possibility for Americans under a new pilot program being developed by the State Department.
The program is inspired by Canada's refugee resettlement system, in which small groups of people—from book clubs to church groups—sponsor refugees. Each group raises money to resettle a family, finding the newcomers a house and jobs, supporting them financially for a year, and helping them adjust to their new lives. Since the private sponsorship policy began in 1979, it's welcomed more than 275,000 refugees, and given them personal connections to Canadians that they wouldn't have otherwise.
The U.S. pilot program, which is expected to launch in the next year, would offer Americans a similar opportunity to help, although details on how it would work are still scarce. It will be set up as a partnership between the State Department and Refugee Council USA, a coalition of refugee-focused nonprofits.
Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richards first mentioned the pilot program at a summit on refugees last week at Concordia University, and a Refugee Council USA spokesperson confirmed it was in the works in an email to Fusion on Monday.
Private refugee sponsorship most likely wouldn't affect the rigorous screening process that refugees go through or let some refugees "jump the line" to enter the United States. Refugee Council USA stressed that they support a sponsorship program that would add on to the existing public refugee resettlement system and increase the total number of refugees resettled, not compete for resources.
"A private sponsorship model would provide an opportunity for private individuals or groups to play a bigger role in resettlement," the council said in a statement. "While the U.S. government coordinates the admission of refugees, it is ordinary people that welcome them into communities across the country."
So far, the U.S. has lagged behind its smaller neighbor to the north in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. While America has welcomed just more than 10,000 Syrians in the past year, Canada has taken in more than 30,000, in part due to the added support provided by private sponsors. (America still resettles more refugees overall.)
The U.S. isn't the only country that's trying to copy Canada's refugee program. More than a dozen nations, including Britain, Australia, Spain, and Japan, have also expressed interest in the system, Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum said at a recent summit. “You are miles ahead if you can bring refugees in supported by your own citizens,” he said. “We believe that this is a good model which is exportable to other countries.” George Soros' Open Society Foundation is now contributing more than $10 million to expand the program worldwide.
Meanwhile, White House officials also announced last week that they had secured commitments from 51 private companies to support refugees by providing jobs, education, or donating to resettlement efforts. The list of backers included Airbnb, which will develop a program to allow hosts to temporarily house refugee families; Coursera, which will give refugees free online job training courses; and Ikea, which will donate furniture to new arrivals.
Refugee resettlement has been a hot political issue this election year, with Donald Trump and other Republicans falsely demonizing refugees—especially Syrians—even though they're screened far more thoroughly than any other foreigners allowed into the country. “The election dynamic is not helping us,” Richards, who runs refugee policy for the State Department, said at the conference, the Globe and Mail reported.
But launching a private sponsorship program would show that despite the political rhetoric, many Americans support refugees and want to do more to help personally.
“As the global refugee population surpasses 21 million, the U.S. should employ all possible avenues to increase our refugee resettlement capacity,” Matthew La Corte, a spokesperson for the the Niskanen Center, a D.C. think tank that has advocated for the policy over the last year, said in an email. Doing so will "save the lives of refugees by harnessing American philanthropy and compassion."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.