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FORT MCCOY | AFGHAN REFUGEES

Watch Now: The excitement was 'palpable': 'The Nutcracker' wows Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy

SPARTA — The iconic melodies of “The Nutcracker” will sound through an unusual venue this weekend: a U.S. military base hosting Afghan refugees.

The Madison Ballet presented the first of four performances of the holiday classic Friday afternoon at Fort McCoy before a crowd of enthralled Afghans at a warehouse on base.

The refugees have been staying at the military installation in Sparta since their country fell to the Taliban following a withdrawal of the U.S. military after 20 years in the country. The base once housed 13,000 refugees, but that number has fallen to around 7,000 as Afghans have been resettled across the U.S., said Eva Rupp, a deputy federal coordinator with the Department of Homeland Security.

Nutcracker Fort McCoy

Afghan children take in the Madison Ballet’s performance of "The Nutcracker."

The performance on Friday had all the trappings of any other, with refugees presenting their tickets at the door, applauding the top moments and recording much of it on their cellphones.

Jonathan Solari, CEO of the Madison Ballet, said the excitement was “palpable” in the warehouse on the base that hosted the performance.

“I’m overwhelmed, my heart is full,” Solari said. “I cannot articulate how much joy it brought me to see them overjoyed.

“There were kids who had their chins on the side of the stage just in awe of our dancers,” he said.

Solari’s mission to bring “The Nutcracker” to Fort McCoy started after reading about the thousands of refugees at the base, half of whom are children. He and his spouse had previously worked with refugees in Greece in 2015 and 2016 in the early years of Europe’s refugee crisis.

“What was best for the kids was a craft, a distraction, something to do,” Solari recalled.

Nutcracker Fort McCoy

Attendees arrive to Madison Ballet’s presentation of "The Nutcracker" for Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy. Attendees came with tickets and were required to wear masks during the performance.

After messaging a friend last month who worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Maryland, Solari was put in touch with officials at the lead agencies overseeing the resettlement of the Afghan refugees.

“This might be a way to be able to show people that we care about them and that they’re welcome here,” he said. “We can give a little piece of ourselves and our culture and we can, in turn, learn a great deal about them.”

Mozhgan Karimi, a 30-year-old Afghan woman who attended Friday’s performance, said she was not expecting the high caliber performance brought by “The Nutcracker” cast.

“It was amazing, and I had a very good experience seeing that,” Karimi said through a translator.

Holiday cheer aside, Karimi’s experience as a refugee has not been easy.

She came to the United State alone, the rest of her family still in Afghanistan. During the chaotic evacuation at the Kabul airport, her cellphone was broken and she still does not have one, putting her out of touch with loved ones for months.

Though thousands of Afghans have been resettled, Karimi does not know when she will leave Fort McCoy. Once resettled, she wants to continue her career as a makeup artist.

“Sometimes I’m thinking about it, I wish I never came,” Karimi said through a translator.

The afternoon’s performance had close-to-the-heart importance for Lela Zafari, a 12-year-old who danced with the ballet. Her father came to the U.S. from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Zafari called the performance “very inspirational.”

“I feel very privileged to get to perform in front of the Afghans,” she said. “I’m just grateful that they liked it. It’s almost like I’m telling them not to give up on their dreams.”

After this weekend’s performances, “The Nutcracker” will pack up from Fort McCoy and return to Madison for nine performances at the Overture Center starting at 7 p.m. Dec. 17.

Lucas Robinson's 5 favorite stories of the year

While I only started at the State Journal as a breaking news reporter in August, my four short months here haven't lacked exhilarating stories and in-depth dives into the community.

My very first day on the job the United States pulled out of Afghanistan. Though naturally I didn't expect it, the ripple effect of that withdrawal colored my reporting at the State Journal more than anything else.

I've highlighted two stories regarding Afghanistan for this collection. The first is a story my colleague Emily Hamer and I wrote about conditions faced by Afghans at Fort McCoy, the U.S. Army base in Sparta that has housed nearly 13,000 refugees since the withdrawal.

The second is a profile of local Afghan War veterans (also written by Emily and me) and their reflections on the twenty year conflict's legacy. That story ran on Veterans Day. 

The rest of my reporting in Madison has bounced from features, spot news and crime stories. 

My recent profile of the Latino residents on the city's North Side is likely my favorite story of the year. I made it a personal priority to help cover the city's Latino community when I arrived in Madison. I hope this portrait of sluggish economic development on the North Side is one of many stories to come. 

Another story I enjoyed covering was the "commencement ceremony" thrown for the Class of 2020 in September. Over a year delayed, that event was my first time at Camp Randall and really reminded me of how much tradition young people were denied throughout the pandemic.

Finally, I included my coverage (with an assist from Kelly Meyerhofer) of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. It was hard to know what the trial exactly meant for Madison. But activists at Penn Park that night felt there was a double standard between Rittenhouse's ordeal and how the Madison Police Department had responded to incidents involving Black teenagers in the weeks before the verdict. 

"We can give a little piece of ourselves and our culture and we can, in turn, learn a great deal about them."

Jonathan Solari, CEO of the Madison Ballet

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