Resettlement, aid efforts gear up for Afghan refugees

By: - September 6, 2021 6:28 am
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: A U.S. military helicopter flies over the Afghan Embassy in a leafy, quiet neighborhood in the northwest section of the U.S. capital on August 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan's government more swiftly than experts expected, forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and U.S. President Joe Biden to send thousands of troops to Kabul to secure the evacuation of U.S. citizens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 16: A U.S. military helicopter flies over the Afghan Embassy in a leafy, quiet neighborhood in the northwest section of the U.S. capital on August 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan’s government more swiftly than experts expected, forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and U.S. President Joe Biden to send thousands of troops to Kabul to secure the evacuation of U.S. citizens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Fort McCoy, the Monroe County Army installation that has been receiving thousands of Afghan refugees as the U.S. military pulls out of their country, announced Thursday that it is expanding capacity to house 13,000 Afghans — nearly double the 7,000 people from Afghanistan currently housed there. 

Also on Thursday Gov. Tony Evers announced opportunities for people who want to provide essential items to Afghan individuals and families staying at Fort McCoy. 

“Wisconsinites have a proud tradition of rolling up our sleeves to help our neighbors when times are tough, and since learning folks leaving Afghanistan would be coming to Wisconsin, Wisconsinites have been asking what they can do to help,” Evers said in a statement. 

Many of the people arriving at Fort McCoy were unable to bring any luggage or personal items with them when they fled their country, Evers pointed out. Clean, new clothing and footwear are among the highest priority items various groups are collecting to deliver to the people arriving at Fort McCoy.

Team Rubicon is collecting large donations of new clothing, footwear and other items donated by businesses and other groups. The veteran-led disaster response organization has an online donation form. More information on Team Rubicon’s current donation needs is available here

Other groups that are helping with the effort include Catholic Charities of La Crosse, which is accepting monetary donations, as is the American Red Cross. The Department of Children and Families website will be continuously updated with new donation locations.

Other groups, including Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan and Jewish Social Services will be involved in resettling people after they leave Fort McCoy. 

The Madison-based Jewish Social Services has resettled 14 individuals from Afghanistan between May and July. None of the most recent arrivals have been resettled in Wisconsin communities yet, according to JSS director Dawn Berney.

JSS expects to be involved in resettling three categories of people from Afghanistan, Berney says: refugees; people holding special immigrant visas, many of whom provided support to the U.S. military effort; and “humanitarian parolees”: people the U.S. allows to migrate here on a two-year visa on humanitarian grounds after a crisis in their country, but who are not eligible for any benefits other than work authorization. 

We’re frantically connecting with landlords and businesses and talking to HMOs and health care providers

– Dawn Berney of Jewish Social Services

Everyone arriving at Fort McCoy is provided with food, housing and basic medical care while on the base. After they are released, JSS and other resettlement agencies receive about $1,100 per person to cover the expenses involved in setting up apartments, buying food for the week, and helping newcomers enroll in programs including English classes, as well as helping them connect with jobs.

“We’re frantically connecting with landlords and businesses and talking to HMOs and health care providers,” Berney said.

Unless Congress passes legislation to provide additional help to the thousands of Afghans who fall into the category of “humanitarian parolees,” that group faces particular difficulties.  

“If you are accepted as a refugee, you do get all these benefits including cash assistance for eight or nine months,” says Berney. But, while her group will help resettle humanitarian parolees (“that’s a horrible term — I keep having to explain it has nothing to do with prison,” says Berney), connecting them with jobs and English classes and enrolling their children in schools, they will have to work to support themselves almost immediately.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says Berney. “If you have to go to work full time, you can’t take ESL [English as a Second Language] during the day, and then you are stuck in an entry-level job.”

“We want people to have an opportunity to do better,” she adds. “Mostly the families we resettle want to be self-sufficient as quickly as possible.”

“It’s harder to become self-sufficient” for people who don’t have time to learn the language and are stuck in the first job they can get, she explains.

Part of the scramble to resettle the Afghans now arriving in Wisconsin stems from Trump administration cuts to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which was badly understaffed even before the current influx, says Berney. 

As for recent comments by Republicans in Wisconsin, including Congressman Tom Tiffany, that the Afghans arriving at Fort McCoy have not been sufficiently vetted and pose a terrorist threat to Wisconsin citizens, Berney says, “My attitude is that there are six different federal agencies that screen these folks — a lot of that processing happened before they even got on an airplane.”

That process will continue for another two or three weeks before anyone is released from Fort McCoy.

“And when it comes to people coming in from Afghanistan,” Berney adds, “these were people who were protecting our military and our contractors for the last 20 years. It would be a travesty for us not to be allowing them into the country at the point where we pulled out of Afghanistan.”

JSS has resettled a total of 61 people from Afghanistan since it started doing resettlement work in 2017 — more than any other group in the state.

The Evers administration has done a good job of coordinating the current effort, Berney says,with weekly meetings with relief groups and the Department of Children and Family and Department of Health Services “to report on where we all are.”

Still, “it’s all happening so quickly,” she says. Wisconsin has not had an influx of people fleeing another country like this since 30,000 Cubans landed at Fort McCoy in the 1980s.

Berney is glad the state is helping coordinate donations, since “everybody and their brother wants to donate clothes to us,” and for now Fort McCoy is only accepting new items.

“We give out vouchers for St. Vincents,” she says. “So I tell people don’t send us your old clothes — take them to St. Vincents.”

For more information on how to help, consult the Department of Children and Families’  list of partner organizations.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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