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Here's what Afghan refugees need as they're resettled in Wisconsin and across the nation

Members of the U.S. military and Afghan refugees play soccer at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. There are nearly 13,000 Afghans at the base.
Barbara Davidson
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Members of the U.S. military and Afghan refugees play soccer at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. There are nearly 13,000 Afghans at the base.

Some of the nearly 13,000 Afghan refugees at Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy Army base are starting to be resettled.

The U.S. Department of Defense is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees nationwide as quickly as possible.

The Fort McCoy-based evacuees were briefed last week about what to expect, where they’ll be going next, and who will be assisting them.

WUWM spoke with Alexander Durtka, president and CEO of the International Institute of Wisconsin, a Milwaukee-based organization that resettles refugees, about where things stand.

“With the resettlement process, it is not something that happens all of a sudden,” said Durtka. “Once we get notification, I think the biggest challenge that we all have, no matter where they're being resettled at this point in time, is with regard to housing, because this is the major thing.”

Durtka said the main issues with finding refugee housing is making sure that it is affordable and safe.

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with Al Durtka.

What are other supports and services that refugees are going to need?

“Certainly they're going to need support in terms of volunteers, for example, mentors. How do [refugees] learn about the supermarket that's here? Or how to get from point A to point B? So, you're looking at that kind of volunteer capacity that you might have or those services that you could do, as well as all those other important things that go into the resettlement,” said Durtka.

He said there are questions around furnishing houses, supplying bedding and towels, and other things people may take for granted. “Those individuals coming from, say Fort McCoy, aren't carrying a whole bag full of bedding and pots and pans, etc, to their new home. So those are kind of the essentials that will be needed to assist them in that resettlement."

Durtka also noted that volunteers are needed to assist with cultural issues and making Milwaukee feel like home when it comes to things like food, language, and religion.

What factors into the decision on where to relocate refugees? Is it based on whether there are other refugee populations or other supports in place?

“Well, I think it's a little bit of all those things,” said Durtka. He explained that some areas of Wisconsin may not have the infrastructure to provide all the public benefits that incoming refugees need. “And they're accessing a variety of different aides that would help them in successful resettlement.”

He said another consideration is that people feel more comfortable where there is a similar population or prior presence of the population that they identify with.

“So, we look at those places that are going to be — I don't want to say more accepting — but have a welcoming kind of feeling for individuals who are coming out of a very traumatic kind of experience," Durtka said. "Being quickly uprooted from their homeland, and put here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

California is gearing up for the arrival of more than 5,000 refugees, Texas is getting more than 4,400. And Oklahoma will be taking in around 1,800. Any ideas about the numbers in Wisconsin?

“I don't know what the final number is going to be in terms of the total number of refugees who settled,” said Durtka. “I think it is really going to depend on the services that are available for them.” He said it will also depend on the capacity of the six Wisconsin refugee resettlement agencies that are spread out around the state.

“I know here at the International Institute, we're anticipating at least 200 individuals that will be resettled, but I think on top of this or below this, you have to understand is that there are the normal flow of refugees that are coming from other places like the Congo, or from Somalia, from Burma, etc. Those refugees are still coming in,” Durtka said.

With California, Texas, and Oklahoma – of all places – getting a lot of refugees, why would a place like Wisconsin not receive as many? Is it the weather?

“From what I understand is, well, it could be the weather, that's certainly one of them. But I also believe in terms of there having linkages with individuals that they worked with, not only the U.S. military, but also U.S. contractors abroad. And many of those individuals come from those places [California, Texas],” said Durtka.

“So, if you look at that a lot of it has to do around military bases, that are very active, whereas Fort McCoy isn’t that same kind of genre of training and individuals going overseas and serving abroad, etc, where some of these other places are.”

Durtka said Wisconsin hasn’t settled many Afghans in the past, and so it’s not necessarily the type of place where individuals say, “Hey, I know somebody here,” or “I have a family member or someone I know who lives within that community.”

How would people help if they're interested in helping?

“We can use all the help we can get,” said Durtka. “No matter what agency we're from, whether Lutheran Social Services or the International Institute in the Greater Milwaukee area, certainly that is in terms of housing, [letting us know] if they know of housing that's available. And as I said, safe and affordable housing, we're not asking for free housing, but safe and affordable housing.”

He said the next priority is financial assistance, because not all of this is covered by the U.S. government. “We do have to raise dollars in order to assist people for the necessities that they might have. Another option is volunteering, providing assistance from teaching English as a second language to mentorship to just being a buddy,” Durtka said.

Finally people can help by supplying goods: anything from furniture to clothes to bedding, dishes or kitchen towels. “Those are also needed,” said Durtka. “That's kind of the third level down. But it has to be something [donations] that we would like to accept, ie: is that something I would feel comfortable of receiving and using myself, not just that I have an excess of it, or I'm trying to give it away.”

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