RACINE – One Afghan family has resettled in Racine this month and as many as four more families are expected within the next few weeks.
Afghan Family Reunited
Last Wednesday, the five-member family was reunited when a 22-year-old woman and her nearly 2-year-old son arrived from a New Jersey military base. They joined the woman’s husband, his brother and his father, who had arrived in Racine on January 9.
“The whole family was just smiles from ear to ear. They all got to playing on the floor with the little guy and his new toys,” said Craig Welch, who is part of a local group that is co-sponsoring the family.
Next came some quick shopping for some winter clothing for the woman. “She just came with the clothes on her back,” Welch said.
The family’s local co-sponsor group – from the St. Vincent de Paul Society and North Pointe United Methodist Church – had previously gathered all the things needed to set up a household. On short notice, group members gathered furniture, kitchen items, bedding, lamps, etc., to get a rented apartment ready for the family’s arrival.
As the family settles in at its new home, a lot lies ahead. There is learning English (most Afghans speak Dari, also referred to as Farsi) and obtaining work permits to start jobs and become self-sufficient. There is also the daunting task of navigating a culture and customs that are entirely different from their own experiences.
Volunteers Step Up
Racine’s new arrivals are among 200 Afghans that Lutheran Social Services (LSS) of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan expects to resettle in Wisconsin over a six-month span that started in October and runs through March. That’s in addition to about 100 refugees from other parts of the world that LSS expects to see, according to Mary Flynn, LSS refugee resettlement program manager.
Refugee resettlement organizations, like LSS, rely on local co-sponsors, generally drawn from churches, to help locate affordable housing for refugee families, supply furnishings (including household goods) and provide temporary financial help with expenses such as rent, utilities and home supplies.
Perhaps most importantly, the local co-sponsors provide what Rev. Kelly Nieman Anderson describes as “the long welcome.”
The volunteer members of co-sponsor groups regularly check in with their assigned families to provide as-needed information (like navigating the city bus system, locating food and other necessities) and providing rides for shopping and appointments. The co-sponsors are making a 12-month commitment to the families, including providing approximately $5,500 per family to help cover living expenses.
“Neighbors are good at being neighbors. This interaction will really make the difference in making sure that these new neighbors will be truly welcomed here in Racine,” said Nieman Anderson, a pastor at Racine’s Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and volunteer coordinator for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Greater Milwaukee Synod’s Immigration and Refugee Task Force.
To help spread out the workload and financial commitment, co-sponsor teams of 25 people are being put together from up to four churches. Each co-sponsor team serves one family.
The Racine Interfaith Coalition (RIC), a local nonprofit with 28 congregations and affiliates, has seen an outpouring of support as it works with LSS to assemble co-sponsorship teams for the Afghan resettlement work, says Linda Boyle, RIC co-president.
“I’m very proud of how the community is coming together,” she said.
In addition to the St. Vincent de Paul/North Pointe United Methodist team, co-sponsors have been assembled from:
- St. Mesrob Armenian Church
- Holy Communion Lutheran Church
- Mount Pleasant Lutheran/Holy Redeemer Lutheran/Lutheran Church of the Resurrection/Covenant Presbyterian.
In addition, members at Sacred Heart Catholic Church are steps to convert the church’s former rectory into housing for refugees.
Pulling Together Community Resources
Boyle said that the timing of additional Afghan arrivals depends on several factors, including housing availability and government paperwork completion. However, the families and individuals should be arriving within the next few weeks.
“Housing is quite tricky,” she said, noting that ideally, the rental quarters for the refugees should be accessible to public transportation because the families and individuals don’t have cars.
Boyle said that Racine’s public and private sectors had stepped in to help with the resettlement. This includes the Racine Transit System (RYDE) for transportation, Cree Lighting for potential employment, the City of Racine’s Financial Empowerment Center for personal finance training, Racine Literacy Council for language instruction and Racine County’s Here to Help initiative that helps families find a variety of services.
“We’re just really happy with all the cooperation. This is a big part of what we do,” said Boyle.
About the Afghan Evacuation
Roughly 76,000 Afghans were bought to the US by the federal government late last summer after the Taliban regime seized Afghanistan’s government. The rapid airlift removed citizens who feared Taliban retribution. According to a report in USA Today, those in particular danger included people who worked for the government, members of civil society, journalists and human rights advocates.
U.S. government first brought the evacuees to military bases in Europe or the Middle East, where US officials conducted security clearances using fingerprints and biographical details. Those cleared were then flown to a handful of US military bases, including Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin.
All Afghans arriving for resettlement have been required to receive vaccines for COVID-19, polio, measles, mumps and rubella.
As of January 21, the Wall Street Journal reported that more than 62,000 Afghans have moved into communities throughout the US. That leaves about 14,000 living on military bases while they wait for resettlement agencies to help them find housing.
Technically Not Refugees
The Afghans are technically not refugees. The need for a rapid evacuation from Afghanistan meant that the US government brought them to the country on temporary humanitarian grounds instead of following a lengthier United Nations-prescribed Refugee Admissions Program.
A bill quickly approved by Congress provides evacuees with temporary government benefits and starter cash. The Afghans are required to apply for work permits to start jobs and become self-sufficient.
The sudden – and large – influx of Afghans has strained refugee resettlement agencies. Those organizations had previously scaled back staff and operations in response to declining refugee admissions during the four years of the Trump Administration. However, they’ve quickly ramped up in recent months, with the help of volunteers, to handle the country’s most significant resettlement wave in decades.
“I think the thing about the Afghans is that they’re arriving in such a compressed amount of time,” said Flynn of LSS.
Added Nieman Anderson: “They (LSS) are doing more than the office was equipped for, but it’s the right thing to do.”
LSS agreed to assist 200 Afghans in resettling to Wisconsin within a six-month timeframe. By contrast, the organization helped an average of 100 refugees throughout an entire year, said Flynn. About two-thirds of the Afghans have been resettled so far.
Flynn says she’s encouraged by early success in developing co-sponsors and community resources in Racine.
“It makes me glad to see that more communities are joining the humanitarian mission of welcome,” she said. “It’s a real resurgence and reawakening of how communities can get involved.”
Why And How To Help
Local organizers are seeking at least two more co-sponsor groups to assist Afghan or other refugees within the next six months.
Nieman Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org 262-261-3059) says she’s happy to speak with any organization or individuals who are interested in co-sponsoring refugees. In addition to churches, civic clubs, veterans’ organizations, and families are potential co-sponsors.
“One of the cool things about refugee resettlement is that it shows me how people can come together,” she said. “As a person of faith, it reminds me that Jesus was a refugee, too.”
The LSS Resettlement Team holds virtual information sessions for everyone considering becoming part of a co-sponsorship team. To learn more, contact Sarah Halstead at email@example.com
For general information about volunteer opportunities, financial gifts and in-kind donations for refugees, visit the FAQ page at: LSS-Refugee-Resettlement-FAQs_REV-12.7.21.pdf (lsswis.org)
Flynn, who has been involved in refugee resettlement work for 12 years, sees the work as a good thing for individuals, communities and the country.
“It will transform you as a community but will also transform you as a person,” she said. “I’m reminded all the time of just how wonderful this country can be.”
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