Stories of Welcome

Finding safety and stability after years of violence and insecurity

Members of the Raleigh Refugee Sponsor Group (from left), Jim, Lauren, Tariq, Mark, Alice, Mara.

A Raleigh community unites to welcome a refugee family

It started with an ask on a neighborhood social network—five strangers connected by their passion to make a difference have merged their talents and resources to welcome a refugee family from Colombia to Raleigh, N.C.

Inspired by his daughter’s volunteer work with refugees, Tariq began researching his own way to help. He discovered the Welcome Corps. Tariq already had the funding secured to support a refugee family, but he needed at least four other community members to help him form a private sponsor group.

Tariq posted to Nextdoor—a social network that connects neighbors on a range of local topics—hoping he’d find like-minded neighbors to join his group.

“I’ve had it in the back of my mind for a while that I’d like to volunteer this way. And then I saw Tariq’s post on Nextdoor, and it just seemed like it spoke to me. So here I am,” Mara said. Soon, community members Tariq, Mara, Lauren, Mark, Jim, Alice, and Ghazala connected and formed the Raleigh Refugee Sponsorship Group.

Each member of the group contributes their unique experience, for example, Lauren formerly worked with refugees from Syria; Mark is a high school Spanish teacher; and Ghazala, who came to the United States from Pakistan, remembers how it felt to be in a new country as a new student at MIT four decades ago. Now retired, she wants to welcome refugees to the United States with the same warmth and support that her host family offered when she started her journey in America.

The sponsors’ commitment, resources, and diverse backgrounds prepared them for the work of welcoming Maria, Jose, and Jesus in January, 2024. With the guidance of World Relief, the group’s private sponsor organization, they explored housing options, language support, local resources, and more. Beyond initial needs and paperwork, World Relief offered suggestions for meals and groceries that provided the family with familiar foods, Mark fostered relationships with Latinos he knows in the community, and Tariq offered connections to a soccer group that includes players from around the world.

What Lauren finds unique about the Welcome Corps is the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the process. “A lot of the time when you volunteer, it’s just a little piece; maybe you’re helping with English, maybe you’re doing something else. We’re a team, and we’re doing all of it,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve really seen a volunteer experience like this in any sort of area.” 

That teamwork has gone a long way to help Maria, Jose, and Jesus settle in their new home. Even before they arrived in the U.S., the group embraced this family. 

Maria gets emotional when recalling the welcome reception that the Raleigh sponsor group coordinated when her family arrived at the airport, saying it was beautiful. “The people who greeted us were very, very kind. They helped us a lot. They were assisting us through the adaptation process,” she said. “They guided us, they counsel us in terms of how to get settled in a new place. The group is very organized.”

Maria and Jose fled from Colombia to Ecuador before they were accepted into the Welcome Corps program.

This relief comes after years of threats, violence, and uncertainty. Maria and Jose met in their native Colombia while working for a drug rehabilitation organization. She was a psychologist and he worked for foundations that helped drug addicts. But Maria withheld a terrifying secret from Jose—because of the people she interacted with through her work, she was threatened and targeted by dangerous groups.

“I had to counsel and make interventions on persons, and some of these people who I had to attend to and counsel came from illegal, armed groups in Colombia,” she shared. “I kind of got to know relevant information, and then I felt very unsafe.”

For years, Maria was followed and persecuted—and the behavior only intensified over time. She had hoped to keep Jose safe and distanced from the threats, but when she found out she was pregnant, she felt she had to tell him. 

Jose made every effort to keep Maria safe. “I was working as an intern. I would spend one week at the place working, and then other weeks, I would work from home. And I was able to assist Maria during the times that we got together,” he said. “But because of her pregnancy, things got more difficult. She had a high-risk pregnancy. Given the circumstances she was going through, that was a very difficult situation for us.”

Despite these challenges, Maria and Jose welcomed a healthy baby boy, Jesus, into the world. Their joy was brief—six months later, one of the groups threatening the young family attempted to kidnap baby Jesus. “I was at work. My mom was taking care of our son… and the attempted kidnapping happened during the night time, when my mom was watching over the house,” Maria said.

The couple turned to every resource they had to protect their family, quickly filing a security request with police. To their horror, the police who assisted them were soon assassinated at the station near Maria and Jose’s home. 

For their safety, the family fled Colombia and sought refuge in Ecuador. They stayed in Ecuador for 13 months before receiving authorization to travel to the United States through the Welcome Corps program.

“They saved our lives. We are healing our scars. We are very, very thankful for all the support we’ve received. [There are] no words to thank [them for] all the help we [have] received.”

Maria, refugee

The family is grateful they can remain together, and they hope for a safe and stable future. Maria shares that the Raleigh sponsor group “…didn’t only give us physical things, material goods, but they also are assisting us in how to go around in the city, how to take a bus so that we end up not depending on them, but we can do things on our own. That’s very valuable,” she said. “And we are very thankful for their assistance.”

And their sponsors are equally grateful for the experience. “I’ve already met wonderful people, and I feel really good about what we’re doing,” Mark said.

Tariq added, “Most people give to charity, most people help [disadvantaged people] in some other ways, but you rarely get to see the end result. In this case, we’ll see the end result of a family coming from an adverse situation into a better—much better—situation.”