Different beginnings, shared experiences

Stories of Welcome

February 26, 2024

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A Congolese sponsor group welcomes Venezuelan refugees

This mission is “something bigger than all of us,” shared Innocente, one of 12 members of a private sponsor group in Austin, Texas.

Sharing smiles, Willy, the leader of the ACA sponsor group, welcomes Aparicio.

These sponsors are all part of the Association for Congolese in Austin (ACA), a community nonprofit that supports Congolese diaspora in Austin with basic life skills, employment, education, acclimating to a new community, and more. Through the Welcome Corps, they formed a sponsor group to expand their reach, resources, and knowledge to refugees from other populations.

The group welcomed their first refugee family of three from Venezuela in December.

“We were thinking about how to expand and try to do something more. That's when we came up with this idea when the program came out where we can not only help ourselves, but now we are helping other people who are not Congolese, for example, this family that's from Venezuela,” Innocente said. “This family is not a Congolese family, but we are coming together as Congolese and helping them.”

When the opportunity to welcome refugees through the Welcome Corps arose, the group members—all of whom are refugees or immigrants themselves—felt called to offer the same love and support they received as newcomers in the United States.

I do believe that we are here in one world, and we should help each other. And everybody has their own story.
Willy, leader, ACA sponsor group

“I know how hard it is to be in a refugee camp. You leave your country where you had everything and move to a country where you have to sleep in a tent, or sleep on the floor, sometimes outside, no water, no electricity,” Willy said. “ We saw really very, very painful experiences, and helping one refugee, you make a big difference in their life.”

Yoliana, Ronald, and their 15-month-old daughter Aparicio, are now benefiting from that help. Originally from Venezuela, their journey to the United States began eight years ago. They first relocated to Colombia where they lived in a refugee camp while their refugee claim was reviewed by the UNHCR. Then, in March 2023, they matched with ACA through the Welcome Corps. Finally, on Dec. 6, 2023, they arrived at the airport on American soil.

A long journey out of Venezuela finally led Ronald, Yoliana, and their 15-month-old daughter Aparicio to Austin Texas, where they were welcomed by members of the Association for Congolese in Austin.

“When we exited the plane and cleared customs, we felt a little bit on our own because we were arriving at a new place,” Ronald said. “But it was a very pleasant surprise when we exited the baggage claim area and we were received by the Congolese group.”

The ACA members greeted them with welcome signs and arranged for a volunteer Venezuelan translator to join them. “This made us feel quite comfortable and at ease and facilitated the process,” Ronald said.

“We were able to bring somebody from Venezuela who speaks Spanish with the same accent as their Spanish. And I think that was very, very helpful and just beautiful even for the person who volunteered to come. He was so excited to be there to do this,” Innocente said. “Having that person for the first time when you arrive in America, having a person from your country in the airport waiting for you, somebody who speaks your language, your accent—that was huge.”

Odette beamed with pride when their sponsor group welcomed Ronald and their family to Austin.

Odette, another sponsor, was overcome with emotions at that moment in the airport. “When they were coming down the stairs and they saw a group of Black people who had accents waiting for them, it was kind of a big surprise, and I was feeling like crying because I was so proud of my group to see us doing this—coming all the way from Africa, welcoming people from Venezuela,” she said.

Austin is a special city to these sponsors—it’s where a new life began. “I came here when I was 20 years old, and that's where I started my life. I love Austin,” Yves said, another member of the group. “We've got a lot of jobs, we've got a lot of opportunities. I don't have anything bad to say about Austin—Austin is my town.”

It should be no surprise, then, that the group reached a major milestone in the sponsorship journey in their first month—securing permanent housing and furnishing the apartment for Yoliana and her family. Next on the list is finding employment.

'I know how hard it is'

As immigrants and refugees themselves, the members of the Association for Congolese in Austin who formed a private sponsor group aim to support and welcome other refugees in Austin.

Each sponsor is responsible for different tasks, and the members communicate their progress in a shared WhatsApp group. Since the members were connected to one another prior to forming a sponsor group through their nonprofit, they have witnessed huge success with their communication and collaboration.

Although some tasks prove more challenging than others, the group appreciates the vital support they receive from the private sponsor organization Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). IRIS is leading the group through the technical aspects of sponsorship. “[Cindy from IRIS] is our backbone,” Willy said. “We are so very grateful to have her, because now we feel like she's one of us, one of our team members. She's been there to guide us and has been so helpful.”

With the resources and support provided by ACA and IRIS, Ronald and his family are settling into their new community. Ronald and Yoliana are taking English classes and exploring the job market—an opportunity they couldn’t access in Venezuela. They look forward to providing their daughter with an enriching education and more resources than they had in their home country.

Dolphin, a member of the ACA sponsor group, enjoys a moment with Aparicio, who recently arrived in Austin with her parents.
Clementine (left) and Odette (right) share a warm welcome with Yoliana and Aparicio in Austin.

“We've had everything we've needed for living, for eating,” said Ronald, who was especially grateful for the care provided to his wife and daughter. “[The sponsors have shown] care and attention dedicated to our child—that group is always looking after her and after our needs to be met at every point.”

Yoliana hopes more Americans take advantage of this opportunity to help others through the Welcome Corps. “There are many, many families, young families and all kinds of families, in need in Venezuela that have no power, no future. They don't have the opportunity of living their life with dignity, with a livelihood that will cover their basic needs,” she said. “ So the help that they've received from the Welcome Corps has been practically life saving. And if this help could be extended to other families in need in Venezuela, it would be of critical importance and will make a huge difference in the lives of many people.”

Willy said their group felt that joining the Welcome Corps was their responsibility, their job. And they plan to continue sponsoring as many people as they are able to support. “If you can sacrifice for somebody—just make them happy, make them smile—it is a big deal.”

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