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Explainer: How Madison may receive Afghan refugee families
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Explainer: How Madison may receive Afghan refugee families

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Margaret Brauer, with Open Doors for Refugees, sets a clock in one of the rooms in this file photo from 2018. An influx of Afghan refugees is expected to arrive in the next several weeks via Fort McCoy. 

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Within the next month, an unknown number of refugees from Afghanistan are expected to be resettled in Wisconsin. They may initially be received at Fort McCoy, located between Sparta and Tomah. 

On July 29, the United States Congress passed a bill to provide funding and resettlement support for Afghans who aided the U.S. Military during a two-decade-long war, and who are now being faced with violent retribution at the hands of a resurgent Taliban as the United States completes a withdrawal of its troops. 

More than 8,000 refugees are expected to be given Special Immigrant Visas (although the number of expected refugees continues to grow). In Wisconsin, refugees are received by local resettlement agencies. These agencies help refugees connect with services and become a part of their local communities.

Jewish Social Services, World Relief Fox Valley, Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, and the International Institute of Wisconsin are the resettlement agencies in Wisconsin. 

Each local resettlement affiliate meets refugees upon arrival and is responsible for getting them transitioned onto their feet. Typically, the agency gives the most support during the first 90 days a refugee is being resettled. Helping them find adequate housing, basic and culturally appropriate food, clothing, school supplies, and applicable public benefits.

How does refugee resettlement work in Madison? 

Dane County is home to a good-sized Afghan population already, and it is possible that Madison will see many new families settling around the city. 

“Madison has a very tight Afghan community, which makes the transition easier,” said Dawn Berney, the executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison (JSS). “There’s already a built-in community for people. That makes a big difference.”

According to Berney, JSS of Madison has already helped resettle 14 Afghan families and is expecting to be heavily involved in the resettlement of many more over the remaining summer and fall. 

“I don’t know what the time frame is going to be,” Berney said. “It sounds like people won’t even be arriving for three to four weeks. 

“I know Fort Lee {in Virginia} has been overloaded with more people than they can handle. We’re really just in the process of reaching out to extended stay hotels because if we get people on short notice we’re not going to be able to get them into apartments.”

JSS sometimes has as little as 48-72 hours of notice before a family arrives in Madison. If the notice is that short, a family usually stays in a hotel while JSS secures an apartment for them. JSS pays the security deposit and four months rent for someone they are resettling, as well as stocking their pantries and refrigerators with enough food to get by. 

“We can furnish two apartments, for example, on two days notice.” Berney said. “Finding apartments is the hardest thing.”

JSS will also help families enroll children into schools and summer programming. JSS partners with entities such as the Literacy Network, Centro Hispano and Madison College to help people both transition and have resources. 

JSS has been helping resettle refugees since 2016 when images of a young boy lying dead on a Syrian beach after having drowned captured the world’s attention. Since then, JSS has been offering case management and resources involving everything from housing to education to health care for refugees. 

How do we define a refugee? 

A refugee is a person who is outside of his or her country and is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, social group or political opposition. 

The people being displaced in Afghanistan are people who in any way helped the United States during the war or who opposed the Taliban. Throughout the 20 years American troops occupied Afghanistan, citizens there acted as interpreters, go-betweens, fought as soldiers, contributed to opposing the Taliban politically, and many other things. 

Now, facing an unchecked and furious advance by the Taliban, these same people face a potentially violent extermination. The U.S. military has deployed thousands of troops to rescue as many people as possible from certain genocide and bring them to the United States. 

The United States was indeed founded by refugees, many of whom fled European countries for the above-mentioned reasons. 

Can refugees live anywhere? 

Yes. Typically refugees go through an arduous screening process after which they are, essentially, able to live anywhere in the United States. Many choose to live in places where they have family or other cultural connections. 

Wisconsin, for example, is home to one of the largest concentrations of Hmong people in the United States. Madison has a long tradition of being a sanctuary for people who are resettling from abroad. 

Is it dangerous to have refugees come to Madison?  

The people potentially coming to Fort McCoy or to Madison, or to the United States at all, are not members of the Taliban. They are Afghan nationals who have been displaced by violence in Afghanistan. At no time past, present, or future will the United States be bringing in the Taliban as refugees to resettle. 

“Refugees are screened more than anybody else is screened. And that is a very important thing for people to know and remember,” Berney said. “There are six or seven federal agencies involved in the screening process before you come to the United States. 

Refugees “are coming here because they want to be safe.In terms of security,” she added. “These are the best people to have living next door to you.”

Are Afghan refugees undocumented immigrants? 

No, they are not. The refugees will be given Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). An SIV is essentially a Green Card that gives someone permanent residency. After five years, SIV recipients are allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. 

How can we help? 

The influx expected from Afghanistan is difficult to prepare for because JSS doesn’t know how many people could be coming. Berney said that people have been calling or emailing asking to do volunteer work. That’s great, she said, but at this point there’s no one to help. 

It’s more effective to make financial donations for now. With more financial support, JSS will be in a better position to house refugees when they do arrive. 

“It’s great so many people want to help,” Berney said. “Financial donations are what we need more than anything else, because we don’t know what folks will need when they arrive.”

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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