A nonprofit organization based in Fayetteville is preparing to help Afghan refugees displaced by the Taliban takeover and ongoing crisis in their home country resettle in Northwest Arkansas.
Canopy NWA is an affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, one of nine national organizations that partner with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. For resettled refugees’ first 90 days in the U.S., LIRS provides financial assistance and case management support, which includes job and school placement, cultural orientations and help connecting with medical providers, said Clint Schnekloth, founder and chairman of the board of Canopy.
President Joe Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 29 to lead efforts to safely resettle vulnerable Afghans, including those who aided the U.S. military in its nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, as part of an effort called Operation Allies Welcome, according to the DHS. There is no set date for when Afghan refugees will begin arriving in Northwest Arkansas, but they could arrive any day, Schnekloth said.
Canopy is the only refugee resettlement organization in Arkansas, and the group’s goal is to help refugees “thrive as they start to call Arkansas home,” Schnekloth said.
The nonprofit resettles refugees from countries across the world, including Rwanda, Uganda, Myanmar and Colombia. To prepare for the Afghan refugees' arrival, Canopy staff is working to secure housing for them, said Hannah Lee, the nonprofit's director of community engagement.
“We’re getting ready to make sure their apartments are furnished, to make sure they have groceries and we’ve also brought on board a case manager specifically to work with our Afghan population,” Lee said.
Canopy NWA partners with several other programs to help with refugee resettlement. The staff works with Arkansas Immigrant Defense to help refugees apply for green cards and citizenship, with Tyson Foods for job placement and training and with the Ozark Literacy Council for English language education.
Community members interested in volunteering to aid Afghan refugees can sign up on the Canopy NWA website. About 1,000 new volunteers recently signed up in preparation for a surge of Afghan arrivals, Schnekloth said.
In addition to helping in smaller capacities, volunteers with the nonprofit can choose to become members of six- to eight-person co-sponsor teams. The teams receive training before being matched with an incoming refugee family, then provide the family with support including transportation, childcare and English practice, Lee said.
Teresa Corbett, a Canopy volunteer since 2016, has been part of a co-sponsor team that worked with two Congolese families, and began working with a third family from Syria on Sept. 21. Working with refugee families has been an incredibly rewarding experience, she said.
“The first family we co-sponsored, they had twin granddaughters that we welcomed at the airport just like we are going to welcome this family tonight,” Corbett said. “(They) spoke no English, and we got invited to their high school graduation party this past May.”
Corbett was even in the delivery room when the mother of her first co-sponsored refugee family gave birth.
“I’d never been on that side of a delivery before,” Corbett said. “And I was surprised because we had said ‘Hey we’ll drive you to the hospital when it's time to have the baby.’ But I didn’t expect that I was going to be in there when she had the baby.”
Corbett became a member of the Canopy NWA board, which oversees the budgeting and use of the organization's federal funding, in 2020. Before it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Corbett also ran Canopy’s after-school program for elementary-aged refugee children. The program taught students skills to help them achieve success in school.
Corbett encourages others to volunteer with Canopy NWA, because she thinks the experience provides an important sense of perspective, she said.
“It’s just a good reminder of what we have.” Corbett said. “Sometimes I think it seems like things seem bad in our country to a lot of people and it gives you the perspective of, ‘Yeah things aren’t really that bad here.’”
Opportunities to get involved with Canopy NWA are abundant, because the organization's services do not stop at initial resettlement assistance. Canopy staff and volunteers work with families for up to five years to help them adjust to their new home, Lee said.
“Once they’re here we really want to make sure we are equipping them and kind of setting them up to be self-sufficient, to have sustained wellbeing, to really build new lives.” Lee said.