San Juan County residents work together to welcome Afghan refugee family

Ann Marie McCarthy, Rick Burns part of local Sponsor Circle Program

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The Sponsor Circle Program is designed to create opportunities for individuals and community groups across the country to support Afghans who have been relocated to the United States.
  • The group works with an Afghan family that came to San Juan County in January.
  • To apply for participation in the Sponsor Circles program, visit

FARMINGTON — A half-dozen San Juan County residents have joined forces to provide financial, logistical, moral and other support to a family of Afghan refugees who recently moved to the area.

Fruitland's Ann Marie McCarthy and Farmington's Rick Burns are two members of the local Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans, which is a joint project of the U.S. State Department and the Community Sponsorship Hub, a program of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers Inc.

The Sponsor Circle Program is designed to create opportunities for individuals and community groups across the country to support Afghans who have been relocated to the United States under Operation Allies Welcome, according to a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Read more:Fruitland woman says Afghan-American friend and family have escaped Kabul

Members of the San Juan County Sponsor Circle are helping ease the transition for the four members of an Afghan family that arrived here in January. The family consists of a mother, two young adult daughters and a 10-year-old son.

The Daily Times is not identifying the family as a safety precaution, since the mother was a member of the Afghan military who fought against the Taliban. McCarthy, a retired nurse practitioner who spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserve and decades working for the U.S. Public Health Service, said the woman was the equivalent of a U.S. Special Forces operative.

Sponsor Circle members each have put up more than $2,300 to provide financial support for the family, and they all have areas of expertise that are being used to help the Afghans adjust to their new surroundings and eventually become self-sufficient, McCarthy said.

A local couple has provided housing for the family in the form of a small casita on their property, although the long-term plan is to find a larger, permanent home for the Afghans at a price they can afford.

McCarthy said members of the circle also are trying to find jobs for the woman and her two daughters, and to secure affordable transportation for them.

"The basics are taken care of," McCarthy said, explaining that the members of the family have been guided through the process of applying for political asylum, work permits, permanent residence and public assistance.

The three women are taking English language classes, and the son is enrolled in a local school and already has signed up for a youth soccer team, she said.

"On a practical level, it's a steep learning curve, but the bottom line is, it's an honor to do this," McCarthy said of her work with the family. "I'm part of a great circle. Everybody's standing up to do whatever needs to be done. Those of us in the Sponsor Circle are on our way to being lifelong friends, and I believe we'll be lifelong friends with the family, too. It's nice to be part of a solution to the horrible situation that happened in Afghanistan."

Refugees 'make us better as Americans'

Burns — a history and government teacher at Piedra Vista High School, and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — raved about the resilience the family has shown, adding that he believes they are remarkable people who will have an outsized impact on their new community and country.

Rick Burns

"These are the kinds of people we look back on in our own history … and we marvel when we look at what they went through," he said. "If we're smart, we'll bring more of them into our communities because they make us better as Americans."

Burns said he is planning on beginning to take lessons this week from the woman and her daughters on how to speak Dari, the language with which they were most familiar in Afghanistan.

"I want to at least make an attempt at speaking their language," he said. "I think you understand people better when you can converse with someone in their language."

The language barrier is one of the more significant challenges facing the family, McCarthy said. She said the mother understands a good deal of English and the daughters understand some, but they need to improve their skills in order to find work and be able to pass a written test for a driver's license.

She said the interactions between members of the Sponsor Circle and the family mostly have taken place through the assistance of the Google Translate app, a multilingual neural machine translation service.

"You speak into a phone, and it translates for you," she said.

McCarthy said she has learned enough about the family to understand they are exceptional people who have survived an ordeal. The family spent a month in Kabul after the Taliban took over awaiting evacuation, she said, so while their present circumstances may not be ideal, they certainly are much better than they were in Afghanistan.

Fruitland resident Ann Marie McCarthy is part of the San Juan County Sponsor Circle Program, a group that is supporting a family of Afghan refugees that arrived here in January.

"There are no bombs going off, and nobody's shooting at them," she said.

Burns said he believes the family is adjusting well, despite the culture shock. He is convinced they are committed to succeeding in America.

"But it's a struggle, right?" he said. "They need some help. We would all need help in a situation where you don't speak the language."

The two daughters are getting enrolled in a GED program here after they were forced to drop out of high school in Afghanistan, McCarthy said. Both are excellent cooks and may be inclined to look for work in the restaurant field.

The mother is a high school graduate and is hoping to find work in the field of security where she can put her military training to use. McCarthy said that while her interactions with the mother have been limited because of the language barrier, she feels like their shared experiences in the military give them a great deal in common.

"I think we're going to wind up having a nice bond," she said.

McCarthy has no doubt the mother will pick up English quickly, since she already speaks several other languages. McCarthy said that is only one of the woman's admirable qualities.

"If you want to look up the word hardy in the dictionary, you'll see her," she said.

Related:Piedra Vista teacher, Army vet reflects on nonprofit work in Iraq, Afghanistan

Burns, who also has founded a nonprofit organization called the Karadah Project International that works with displaced women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he has been very impressed with most of the women from Afghanistan he has encountered in his work. He said he was drawn to join the Sponsor Circle for a variety of reasons.

"We own them because of our involvement in Afghanistan," he said. "As a veteran, I felt obligated to the people from Afghanistan who worked with us and bought into what we were selling. As an American and a humanitarian, I feel like we owe it to them to do everything we can to facilitate their success."

Burns said he sometimes uses the example of displaced Afghan citizens to put things in perspective for his high school students. Many of those students come from difficult personal circumstances themselves, he said, and they certainly have their trials and travails as they transition from adolescence to adulthood.

"But, generally speaking, they're not getting shot at," he said.

Joining the circle

McCarthy encouraged other local residents to consider becoming members of a Sponsor Circle, explaining that there are only 30 such groups around the country and more are desperately needed.

To become a member, there is an application process and a background check, along with the required financial contribution to the family the circle helps support. But McCarthy said the time commitment is not heavy, and the rewards of participating in the program are great.

At some point, she said the local Sponsor Circle likely will consider bringing in another Afghan family, so more help will be needed down the road. The two families also could provide each other with a sense of cultural familiarity and comfort in a community where there is no other Afghan presence, McCarthy said.

But she doesn't doubt that people here are up to the task of welcoming this family and perhaps another.

"The one thing that's really cool about San Juan County is it really values family," McCarthy said.

Anyone interested in helping the local Afghan family with its transition can contact McCarthy at 505-320-5209. To apply for participation in the Sponsor Circles program, visit

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.