Handling Finances For Sponsoring a Refugee Family

Since our new Ukrainian friends arrived three months ago we’ve had a lot of questions about our experience sponsoring a refugee family. Some questions are cultural. Others are about the more personal experience. Many questions are also financial.

Most people know that we believe talking about money is helpful, not taboo. Every family has to make financial decisions and it’s better to learn from each other than to try to figure it all out without help. So when someone has a question about the financial changes that come with sponsoring a Ukrainian family, they often just ask us. 

To save you the trouble of asking, we’ve compiled some of those questions, with our answers, here. If we missed anything that you’re dying to know, feel free to add your question in the comments. 

You can also see our actual spending for every budget category in our monthly budget updates. It’s not always obvious what portion of that spending is due to helping support our Ukrainian family, but we’ll try putting together some trends over time soon to make that easier to see.

We’ll cover the actual monetary costs of sponsorship, our philosophy in approaching this adventure, and some more detailed responses to frequent questions. For anyone considering sponsorship, we have had a wonderful, rewarding experience so far, and we hope our shared experiences can be useful to you. For everyone else, we hope this is at least interesting.

First, the birds-eye view of the finances.

Our family’s initial sponsorship costs

I am having a really hard time putting a number on the initial sponsorship costs because so much of it was covered by generous friends, family, and even strangers. Just thinking back on it now, is filling my heart with joy and gratitude!

Converting our Airbnb guest house to a long-term apartment for four required changing out much of the bedroom furniture. Most of the furniture was donated by friends, including a leather couch, several bookshelves, a desk, and a couple of dressers. I was particular about the beds in order to use the space most efficiently. After searching Facebook marketplace for a while, I found a twin/full bunk bed and a twin loft bed for a good price.

I set up a Target registry where friends (including many of you!) could purchase specific needs that were shipped straight to us. This included mattresses, towels, diapers, wipes, pillows, bedding, toiletries, and more. Seeing the love pour in in the form of brown Target boxes brought tears to my eyes!

We used cash donations to cover three new phones (more details on the phone situation below), summer swim team fees, a new Chromebook (they had been doing school on Google Classroom in Poland only using phones), and other incidentals to get the apartment ready for them.

Other friends gave gently used dishes, household items, and clothes and shoes in the specific sizes we needed.

I stocked the fridge, freezer, and pantry with about $500 of food to get them started.

It was such a blessing to have an outpouring of love and support to get the apartment set up for our Ukrainian friends. Not knowing what the specific future financial needs would be, it was a big burden lifted to have so many people step in to help shoulder these initial costs.

Our family’s ongoing sponsorship costs

  • $2,000/month
    This is the missed income for not renting our guest house as an Airbnb. Over the past two years we averaged $2,000 per month in Airbnb income. Because our Ukrainian friends live in the apartment, now converted for a family of four, that income is no longer part of our monthly budget.
  • $75/month
    This is the cost of three unlimited-data phone plans with Visible, the Verizon subsidiary we use for our phones as well.
  • $53/month
    Additional cost of auto insurance on adding the 15-passenger van.
  • $300/month
    Increased gasoline cost. New people means more driving to shopping, appointments (so many appointments!), sports, classes, and activities. The gas mileage on the big van is also about half of what our minivans get, so when we are all driving together it costs a lot more than it used to.
  • $30/month
    We increased the max data on our Comcast internet plan to cover the much higher data needs of three new high-volume users. We had a 1.2TB limit for five years, but ran over that significantly the month our friends arrived.

Their government benefits were recently approved and will cover their food, health insurance (which includes dental coverage), and with the temporary cash assistance program, some of their other expenses. 

Q: How does the refugee sponsor program work?

A: The federal  program for Ukrainian war refugees is called Uniting for Ukraine.  The premise of the program is that the United States government supports the idea of some Ukrainians displaced by the war coming to the United States, but does not intend to create any new government-sponsored programs to take care of them once they arrive. Instead, the government crowdsources the care, transition help, and support of the refugee arrivals to current U.S. residents who meet basic security requirements and can show evidence of the ability to financially support the refugees. Because every refugee must be matched with a sponsor before they are permitted to come to the United States, the number of displaced Ukrainians allowed to enter the U.S. is entirely dependent on the number of volunteers able and willing to sponsor them.

(Note: technically the Ukrainians under the program are called “humanitarian parolees,” not “refugees,” because “refugee” has a distinct meaning in immigration law. We use the more common “refugee” because everyone understands it.)

Q: How long will you be responsible for supporting your Ukrainian family?

A: We expect to financially support our new friends for at least two years. Refugees are initially given permission to remain in the United States for two years. If it’s still not safe to return to Ukraine after two years, the government may decide to extend the length of their stay, something they have done for refugees from other countries. 

That said, we also expect that our financial support may look a little different two years from now. Our Ukrainian family includes a mom and her 16-year old boy, 11-year old girl, and a toddler. We started out covering almost everything, including housing, utilities, phones, food, diapers, transportation, clothing, and household and personal item, but as they improve in English and the mother and older boy are able to work, we hope they can begin to build their own financial platform to work toward independence.

Q: What about government benefits?

A: While the government does not have any new programs specifically to take care of Ukrainian refugees, they can benefit from many of the programs that already exist for low-income families. In California that includes things like food assistance, Medicaid for health insurance, and a temporary monthly cash allowance. Because the mother doesn’t yet speak English, her opportunities for work are pretty limited. With no current income and no real assets, our friends qualify for all of those programs. It does take some time for all that paperwork and processing. We’ve spent over a hundred hours traveling to county, state, and immigration offices, filling out forms and applications, and getting everything set up.  Now that they have social security cards, work authorizations, bank accounts, insurance, and benefits all approved, we expect that initial heavy time commitment will decrease.

One other big government benefit is school. The school-age kids are enrolled in the same high school and middle school as our children. The mother is enrolled in free English classes at a public charter school which focuses entirely on adult education, including English as a second language and vocational training. Through her school she also has access to public transportation passes so that she can more independently take the bus and light rail to school and back.

Q: Can Ukrainian refugees work?

A: Yes. They are able to work immediately upon arrival, but it does take up to a few months to receive their social security cards and their formal employment authorization papers. One sponsor we know is hosting a young lady who speaks excellent English, and she was able to find work quickly. It’s much more difficult without English. Because we have seen other friends with limited English working so hard in low paying jobs that they can’t take the time to study, we encouraged her to focus first on English for now while we are able to support her. Once she has a good language foundation, she’ll have much better work opportunities that let her both earn and continue studying.

During the summer our teenage son usually works several days a week for neighbors or others who need a hard worker with a young man’s energy and strength. Sometimes our 16-year-old Ukrainian boy goes with him and he’s very proud of what he has earned. That work has ended now that school has started, so we’re encouraging him to not spend it all when he gets it. He does make some contributions to his family expenses with his income.

Q: How much did it cost for them to come to the United States?

A: In our case, all the costs of getting Ukrainian paperwork in order and the actual flights, luggage, and incidentals were covered by the generous volunteers and donors of the non-profit Reach Humanity. Actual costs were probably about $5,000, with a majority of that being airfare.

Our Philosophy

A couple days after our Ukrainian family arrived we had a friend who could interpret over so we could have an initial conversation without relying on Google Translate. Mike explained that we were happy to have them here and that we consider them as part of our family. We want the Mom to have access to the same opportunities and experiences that we as adults in America have, and the kids to have the same opportunities that our children have. We would essentially take care of them as if they were our own family for as long as they needed it.

An example might help illustrate how that works. One of the first things we needed to buy for them was cell phones. Phones are more than internet devices for them; they’re essential interpreters. Using the Google Translate app, they can speak in Ukrainian and have their words translated instantly to English text. They can also have English speakers talk to their phones and read or listen to the Ukrainian translation. They brought three cell phones with them from Ukraine, but they were on their last legs, with broken screens that didn’t work consistently and short-lived batteries that required a bulky external battery to be toted around. The biggest problem though, was that their phones don’t work with US cell carriers.

The teenage boy told us that he wanted a Google Pixel. Knowing that it was pricier than the phones we had in mind, Mike laid out a couple of choices and said we would give him the same options we gave our daughter. 

  • Option 1 was that we would pay the entire amount, about $150, for a Moto G Power, the same phone that Mike and our oldest daughter have, or something equivalent. 

The boy explained all of the reasons why the Pixel was superior to the other Motorola. Mike agreed that it certainly was a better phone, which was why it cost $599 instead of $150. 

  • Option 2 was that he could choose the Pixel 7, and we would pay $150 toward the cost if he could cover the additional $449.
  • Option 3 was a Pixel 7a, which has most of the benefits of the Pixel 7, but cost $100 less. We would pay the $150 toward the Pixel 7a as well, and he would cover the additional $349. 

The mom and daughter were happy with the less expensive phones, which were a big step up from their phones from Ukraine, but the son chose the Google Pixel 7a. We had already found some work for him with our oldest son, so he was able to pay us his $349 share in the first week and a half.

Live and Learn

We approached our sponsorship knowing that there would inevitably be occasional misunderstandings due to language, culture and disparate life experience. We’ve been delighted to find those misunderstandings are less frequent than we expected, but they do happen. Here’s one example.

Summer swim team is a big part of the summer for our family. The kids have practice for an hour or more 5 days a week, with swim meets every Saturday throughout the summer. When our new friends arrived we invited them to watch a swim practice to see if it was something they wanted to do. They both eagerly said they wanted to participate. I did a little legwork and was able to secure a need-based scholarship that brought the cost down to $215 each. I didn’t tell them about the cost because I didn’t want them to feel bad or have the cost deter them from participating. I just paid it and signed them up.

After less than a week of practice, the boy sent us a message saying “I realized that swimming does not bring me pleasure. This will be my last practice.”

Here’s where our treat-them-like-we-would-treat-our-own-kids philosophy fails.

If it were our own kid who told us he wanted to do a sport and then wanted to quit after a week, that would not fly! Our kids know that quitting wouldn’t be an option, so they wouldn’t even ask!

In fact, some of our kids were pretty upset about the situation. “You can’t just let him quit! You already paid for the whole season!”

While that’s kind of how I felt too, I kept my calm and explained that I’m not his mom so it isn’t my place to tell him to stick with it. He didn’t know that we paid for it and if he was miserable then forcing him to continue wouldn’t be very kind. We had a little talk about sunk costs, which helped me to remind myself to let it go.

While we couldn’t do anything about what happened in the past, this experience taught us how we can be more clear in the future. Next time we will make sure he is aware of the cost and commitment involved ahead of time. Depending on what it is, we may have him split the cost with us so there is some sacrifice/buy-in involved. That has worked well with our own kids.

We continue to tune our financial support as the situation changes. The same 16-year old boy who chose a Pixel 7a also really wanted to continue boxing, a sport he had begun in Ukraine. We found a gym that offers boxing and offered to pay for a portion of the membership cost, letting him contribute through matching, something we do for our kids when they have activities that cost money.  Proud of how much he earned over the summer, and feeling his 16-year old independence, he chose to pay the membership himself.  We drive him to the gym and back every day, but he pays his way once he’s there. He hasn’t saved enough to do that all year, so we may adjust again as the situation changes.

Q: Would We Recommend It?

A: Yes! We absolutely love having our Ukrainian friends with us. In a lot of ways it’s like having favorite cousins move in next door and doing everything together. We have loved seeing our kids. If you’re thinking about sponsorship, we can’t recommend it highly enough. 

On the whole, the most surprising things have been 1) how smooth everything has gone and 2) how much time that we’ve spent. We knew there would be misunderstandings and challenges, but they’ve been less frequent and less severe than we expected. We knew there would be a significant time commitment, but somehow we hadn’t taken into account quite how many new things we would be doing, especially the initial setup for immigration compliance and government benefit programs. Now that everything is in place, we’re getting deferred doctor and dentist visits taken care of. Hopefully after that, things calm down a little with just normal school, sports, and activity schedules.

The other thing that has been surprising (in a delightful way) is how very very quickly the kids are picking up English. In three months, both the 16-year old boy and the 11-year old girl have completely transformed their communication. Now that they’re starting school, we expect that transformation to accelerate. It’s not that fast for the mom, but she’s making really noticeable progress too.

Q: What Happens in the Future?

A: We don’t know what will happen in two years. Either our Ukrainians will be required to return to Ukraine or they will be allowed to stay for longer. The war doesn’t seem to be a on fast track to resolution, but at the moment the United States government doesn’t offer a clear path to citizenship or permanent residency. We’ll see what the future brings.

In the meantime, we know we have two years. We’ll work to help launch our new friends into independence as if they were staying forever. Right now, that would be their preference if they were allowed. If they aren’t allowed, and they end up returning to Ukraine or elsewhere in a few years, we’ll be rooting for them as they rebuild. Today we just have today, so we’ll try to be the best friends we can.

In our next installment, I will talk about managing money and money mentality as it relates to our Ukrainian friends.

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