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As 400 Afghan refugees resettle in the Milwaukee area, housing and transportation are key needs

Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer match near where they are staying in the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on Sept, 30, 2021 in Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin.
Barbara Davidson
Getty Images
Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer match near where they are staying in the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on Sept, 30, 2021 in Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin.

Afghan refugees are still at several Army bases, including Wisconsin's Fort McCoy. At one point, nearly 13,000 people were housed there.

Resettlement agencies have been helping place refugees throughout the country. The State Department has approved the resettlement of 850 Afghans in Wisconsin. Four hundred are coming to the Milwaukee area.

The Biden administration is aiming for everyone to be relocated by mid-February.

Al Durtka is president and CEO of the International Institute of Wisconsin, a Milwaukee resettlement agency. Durtka tells WUWM that the refugees have a wide range of needs and expectations.

"If I could put it this way, you have to understand [that Afghanistan], it's a very large country, number one, and you have people who have come from different experiences," he says. "You have some from very urban kind of settings, some of the people in the government and higher education and medical fields, etc. And then you have people who are out there in the field ... who were in some distant province and might have served the US in terms of being an interpreter for that particular kind of group."

Durtka says their expectations are going to be very different from one another. “And so it is trying to make those expectations realistic and to give them something that's very achievable," he explains.

But first, Durtka says, people need to get settled, establish some roots and get embedded in the community. "That means in terms of safe and affordable housing, for example. It might not be the greatest thing in the world, but it is something that they can count on. It's going to be there. They're safe. It's affordable for them as they move forward. Now, this all takes time. It's not going to happen overnight.”

Al Durtka's conversation on Lake Effect.

Durtka says they see a certain amount of frustration from the Afghans, and that's because the process only started recently in September. "So, they been in this kind of transitory state ... from leaving their homeland to perhaps going to another place, then being placed in the camp, and then sitting there for a good period of time and now being put out into the community. So, there is a certain amount of frustration that is happening there."

People need to be aware of that and talk about it, he says. Durtka says refugees should be able to talk about what their fears are, what their anxieties are and what their hopes their dreams are. "With that particular kind of knowledge, we can help them to move forward," he says.

Beyond housing, refugees need access to schools and possibly help to understand the myriad of changes that are even difficult for very established Milwaukeeans.

“I mean, look at the frustrations that we have in terms of especially during this COVID era. Are schools open, are they closed? Are we doing virtual? Are we doing in person? Those kinds of things. And then you get into all the linguistic kind of issues, in terms of how do you communicate? What's your ability to communicate to these individuals, to especially not only the children, but also to their parents? How do you make sure that they're getting the correct message?," he says.

Transportation is also key, Durtka says. “How do you get from point A to point B? I mean, if you asked me to do the bus route right now, I probably would have some very difficult times with that navigating. So if you look at somebody new coming into the community, it's really helping them with those kinds of things.”

Durtka says volunteers can really be of assistance by taking refugees under their wing. "And as with any newcomer, kind of walk them along. It's just like if we go to another country, we don't speak the language, and the culture is totally different as to what people even eat. So, what I'm going to be looking at is someone who can help me get through those small steps so that I can become very successful."

People have been very generous with their help, but there’s still more work to be done, he says — especially as others from Afghanistan will be seeking placement in Milwaukee as well as other refugees from around the world.

Interested volunteers can reach out to the International Institute of Wisconsin and Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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