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How Wisconsin Resettlement Agencies Will Be Helping Afghan Refugees

Refugees walk through the departure terminal to a bus at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 31, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Refugees walk through the departure terminal to a bus at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 31, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia.

Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin is currently housing 2,383 Afghan refugees, with a capacity for 10,000 people, according to Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck. The Department of Defense update on Afghan refugee operations took place Friday, as reported byWEAU 13 News in Eau Claire.

The refugees left their homes in urgent and dangerous circumstances. They’ve arrived in a place where people don’t speak their native language or practice their customs. And they don’t know where they’ll ultimately end up.

It can be a traumatic and disconcerting time, according to Hector Colon, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. The organization is working to help resettle Afghan refugees.

At this time, Colon doesn’t know the number of Afghan refugees coming to Fort McCoy or to the U.S. overall. But he says there will be many at Fort McCoy.

“And some of which could be resettled in Wisconsin,” he says. “But that does not mean that all of them would be resettled in Wisconsin. So, there are service providers all across the country, that could be accepting and receiving these individuals and providing them opportunities to resettle really across the country.”

He says this is a new situation – an extreme emergency – so he can’t assess based on past experience how long the refugees will stay at Fort McCoy. When the refugees finally get a chance to be resettled permanently, they will be set up quickly with housing, food, clothing, English language training, job services and placement, and getting their children enrolled in school.

“We usually provide these services for a year,” says Colon. “We can continue to provide these services for additional four years. But many of these individuals get fully integrated very quickly learn English and have a job even become citizens shortly after a year. And they end up loving the United States of America very much.”

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with Hector Colon, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services on Afghan refugee resettlement.

Colon says resettlement organizations connect refugees to organizations that understand their cultural backgrounds. He says another issue is that the refugees, especially the children, have in some cases experienced extreme trauma.

“So one of the things that we are very mindful of is: how do we make sure that we can serve that as well?”

There's no one trajectory for a refugee in terms of finding a job and getting settled economically. People come with different skills, different backgrounds, and different education levels. So Colon says his agency and others have a person-centered approach to assistance.

“We connect them to those industries, just like you would anybody else here in the United States of America, " Colon said. "So, depending on their interests, their skills, their background, we try to make those connections and leverage so that we can get them integrated quickly into society and help them obtain a job that they would enjoy."

During the Trump presidency, there were significant cuts to refugee resettlement overall and to support for resettlement agencies. Colon says that’s resulted in a tough situation.

“There are many organizations that got out of refugee services, because the numbers were substantially reduced under the Trump administration," says Colon. "So basically, they were no longer sustainable. We faced those similar challenges. We had conversations about the refugee program, we decided that we wanted to stay in the refugee program.”

Colon says they’ve had to cut staff and supplement government funding with philanthropy. “That's why we've been fundraising to ensure that we can run this program in a sustainable way, and help many people who need our help, especially now more than ever,” he notes.

Colon says President Joe Biden did increase the number of refugees that could be settled in the country from 15,000 to over 62,000. He says Lutheran Social Services is trying to develop the capacity to get back to serving more than 300 refugees.

“So that was taking some resources,” he says. “And so we can add staff and interpreters to just accommodate the increased number of refugees that we're going to come to us anyway. On top of that, now you have the Afghan situation, which places even more challenges for us. But organizations like ours rise to the occasion. And we will do what we need to do”

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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