Mathias Shimirimana rang up orders of chicken strips and sandwiches for the college students crowding into the spicy fried chicken restaurant in southeast Minneapolis, quietly maneuvering through the dinner rush.
"For here or to go?" he asked. "Anything else?"
Watching from a nearby table, the sponsors who welcomed Shimirimana to the Twin Cities from Zimbabwe three months ago were impressed at his ease behind the counter, remarking that he was settling into his first job in America well.
Shimirimana, 37, had lived as a refugee for most of his adult life and likely still would be in a camp if not for a novel federal program allowing a group of local Ethiopian natives who had never met him to sponsor him to come to the United States.
Refugees have long come to America through nonprofit resettlement agencies that find them housing, connect them to social services and foster cultural orientation. But after the U.S. began using private sponsor groups to support masses of Afghans and Ukrainians fleeing civil collapse and war, the Biden administration announced a program in January called the Welcome Corps using the same model to resettle people from around the world. Calling it the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades, the Department of State said the program would tap into the goodwill of American communities.
Minnesota already is at the national forefront. It has 10 Welcome Corps sponsor groups, more than any other state. The first Welcome Corps refugees in the nation arrived in Worthington and Moorhead in June.
People brought to the United States through the Welcome Corps fall under the annual 125,000 refugee cap set by the Biden administration. The actual number of refugees the system can support often falls below that number, and private sponsor groups expand America's capacity to bring in new arrivals.
Over the last year, 1,525 refugees resettled in Minnesota through the traditional system. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Myanmar sent the largest numbers.
Shimirimana said he hopes for the Welcome Corps "to get bigger, to bring more people, because there are thousands and thousands of people in refugee camps in Africa who need help."
Giving back to the community
In Brooklyn Park, Robsan Yusuf eagerly followed news of the Welcome Corps. He is Oromo, a major ethnic group of Ethiopia, and arrived in Minnesota as a refugee in 2005. Now the owner of a home health care company, Yusuf, 41, had always been determined to help the refugees who followed, and asked five Oromo friends to form a sponsor group with him. They filled out the application, underwent government vetting and raised money in Ethiopian WhatsApp groups to cover the $2,275 in expenses of each sponsored person's beginnings in America.
Yusuf and another member of the sponsor circle, Mohamed Dawid, spent days at a Caribou Coffee hashing out a 16-page required welcome plan to explain in great detail how they would support a newcomer in the first three months.
"It is giving back to the community, since I am myself a former refugee," Yusuf wrote in response to a question asking why he wanted to participate.
Dawid, for his part, had spent much of his childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing armed conflict in Ethiopia. He came to the U.S. in 1999 at 18 years old.
"That's not something easy, to be honest," recalled Dawid, 42. "When you have that kind of life, you have sympathy for others in that kind of situation."
He studied accounting and business management in college and is now a customer service manager for the parking system in Minneapolis.
"We learned pretty much the hard way, but now we don't want those people to come and go through the hard way when we can help them," Dawid said.
Shimirimana's late parents fled violence in their native Burundi in the 1970s for what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there, he escaped war in 2008 for Zimbabwe. Shimirimana was approved to come to America as a refugee in 2018, but refugee reductions under President Donald Trump, the pandemic and other delays stalled his departure. In Zimbabwe, a WhatsApp group among his friends lit up with hopeful messages at the news that the U.S. was allowing refugees to come through private sponsors.
"They were excited," he recalled. "The big part of it is just to come out from the camp and be somewhere else." Whether received by private sponsors or traditional agencies, "it doesn't matter. The good thing is just to come out from the jungle and start living life."
So when Shimirimana got the call asking if he would agree to be received by private sponsors, he signed the papers.
In June, the Welcome Corps told Yusuf that it had found his sponsor group a match. But as Shimirimana's July 11 arrival date inched closer, Yusuf worried how he would find him a place to live. Landlords kept telling him they wouldn't rent an apartment to someone who was not yet here.
"We are in trouble," he told a coordinator at Alight, a nonprofit that supports private sponsor groups.
Finally, someone told him of a condo owner who was willing to accept three months of $600 rent in advance. Yusuf and his friends bought a mattress and other furniture, and someone donated a bed frame. He went to the airport with Dawid, and they took Shimirimana to an Ethiopian restaurant in St. Paul and his new condo.
"We made it – like a big touchdown," Dawid remembered thinking.
Mobilizing more sponsors
The sponsors found it harder than expected to navigate the bureaucracy required to sign Shimirimana up for food stamps, cash benefits and health insurance and secure all his legal documents, including his work authorization. But Yusuf's friend, an Ethiopian American who owns the chicken restaurant Nashville Coop, swiftly offered Shimirimana a job starting at $15 an hour. He began cashiering and serving food in September, taking the light rail to work. Shimirimana dreams one day of working as a truck driver, but for now is dedicated to making his way at the restaurant.
The Welcome Corps is trying to mobilize at least 10,000 Americans to sign up as private sponsors in the program's first year and resettle at least 5,000 refugees. The state department said thousands of people have signed up to learn more and participate in information sessions.
Andrea Gagne, senior program manager of private sponsorship at the refugee assistance nonprofit HIAS, said when the Biden administration began its private sponsorship program for Ukrainians, it didn't have a lot of oversight and many sponsors didn't know what to expect or what was required of them. The Welcome Corps offers more structure.
Alight is working with 10 Welcome Corps sponsor groups, including some in other states, and hopes to support 100 by the end of the year. The organization has been holding weekly information sessions, going to neighborhood associations and rotary clubs, and reaching out to community elders to encourage people to sign up.
The day that Yusuf and Dawid visited Shimirimana at Nashville Coop, the restaurant grew quiet as the dinner crowd emptied out and they finally had time to talk.
"So everything is going good for you so far?" Dawid asked.
"Yes, so far so good, no complaints," Shimirimana said. "Dreams are big, but bit by bit I will get there."
"That's the American dream," Dawid said.
"You have to build it," Shimirimana agreed.
"And you have to work for it, too," Dawid said. "Nothing comes overnight … That's why you have to follow the rules and policies. You have to do the right thing. You will get there."
Shimirimana agreed. As his sponsors prepared to leave, he told them, "Once I settle down, I wish to do this for others."