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America Welcomes: In Connecticut, Sponsors Welcome Second Syrian Family; In Massachusetts, LGBTQ Community Members and Allies Welcome LGBTQ Asylee

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Two New England states recently welcomed new arrivals under Welcome Corps, the Biden administration’s expanded program allowing groups of Americans to sponsor a refugee. 

In Connecticut, a group of sponsors welcomed a family of six that initially fled the Syrian civil war in 2012. At that time, Zyad Al Mahameed and Souzan Al Jarad had just one child, who, because of age, “was unaware of the surrounding war,” Welcome Corps said. “That’s when I thought that I should start a plan to get out of there, just to save our lives,” the family’s father said. 

After fleeing to Jordan, the family was interviewed by the U.N. Refugee Agency, which set the path for their arrival in New Britain this past March. They were welcomed by the Welcoming Project Sponsorship Group, which had already co-sponsored a Syrian family in the past. The group of sponsors said they had such a positive experience that they sought ways to help another family start a new life in America. 

“This is an experience where you really get to make a meaningful contribution like you’re actually changing the course of someone’s life,” said group member Sue Sames. “There aren’t many volunteer experiences that allow you to do that. It’s a big commitment of your time, but you’re not being asked to do anything that you don’t do in your normal life. I’ve got to say, this has just been one of the joys of our lives.”

The joy has been infectious. Sames said that a daughter from the first family sponsored by the Welcoming Project Sponsorship Group has been eager to help welcome Zyad Al Mahameed, Souzan Al Jarad, and their children. “She says, ‘I can hardly wait. I can just hardly wait to tell them that everything is going to be okay, that they’re safe here.’ And it just brought tears to my eyes,” Sue said. “We help them feel safe. We help them just know that everything is going to be okay.”

In Massachusetts, Boston resident John Abdallah Wambere – nicknamed ”Long Johns” – knows the struggles facing many LGBTQ migrants fleeing their home countries. Long Johns fled Uganda in 2014, soon after the harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation was signed into law. That legislation, in its original form, proposed the death penalty for LGBTQ people simply living their lives. It was later amended to life imprisonment (and would eventually be struck down by the courts). Because Long Johns had been outed by Ugandan media, his future was assuredly in danger there.

“His experience as a refugee and community activist supported his decision to form a private sponsor group,” Welcome Corps said, bringing in several more neighbors, including additional LGBTQ community members and allies, to form a sponsorship group. They named it Uhuru, which means “freedom” in Swahili. At the end of January, they welcomed Rebeca Castro, an LGBTQ asylee from El Salvador. 

“When she arrived, she was celebrated with a birthday cake and welcomed as her true self by a group of sponsors who genuinely understood her struggle,” Welcome Corps said. For Rebeca, being able to more freely express her gender identity is still taking some getting used to.

“I was invited to a concert and they were all telling me, ‘Welcome to America. You will be fine,’” Rebeca said. “They have all been very kind to me, and it’s really amazing. I feel so fine living here because they accept me as I am and not as it was in El Salvador where I was really living a tough time because of my sexual orientation. Whereas here, none of that happens.”

Recent figures showed that since Welcome Corps’ expansion several months ago, 65,000 Americans have submitted 13,000 group applications to participate in the program, with another 11,000 applications pending. Americans from every state have signed up, “with Minnesota, Washington, Texas, California, and Ohio leading the way in submissions,” Niskanen Center said. “This outpouring of support is yet another example of Americans’ enthusiasm for welcoming refugees in their communities through private sponsorship.” 

RELATED: More than 65,000 Americans Have Signed Up To Welcome Refugees Under Expansion of Biden Administration’s Private Sponsorship Program

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