Welcoming Afghan evacuees to Madison wasn’t as easy as just finding them a home
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - More than 70 Afghans now call Madison home with the help of Dane County’s only refugee resettlement agency: Jewish Social Services.
Last year the world watched as 80,000 Afghans were quickly evacuated from Kabul as U.S. troops left the country and the Taliban gained control.
Most of the evacuees were housed for several months at military bases, including nearly 13,000 at Fort McCoy in Camp Douglas, WI. Now they have left to resettle in new communities across the country, including more than 1,000 in Wisconsin.
“People in Madison are very excited to have refugees living here, but we’re still figuring out, how do we make it all work together,” said Dawn Berney, the former Executive Director of Jewish Social Services.
Berney, who retired a few months ago, said the process of resettling the Afghans in Madison was at times overwhelming for their agency, considering the high volume of evacuees suddenly needing their support in finding housing, work, education, medical care and more.
“Remember, that it was coming at a time after we had very few refugees coming to the United States. So, our staff was quite small and all the sudden we were resettling people in three months as we might do in a year or a year and a half,” said Berney.
With the support of newly hired JSS staff members, volunteers, and several other community organizations, dozens of Afghans have successfully made Madison their new home. Meanwhile, as evacuees build their lives here, here are some of the obstacles they - and the agencies looking to resettle them - face.
When JSS is connected with an Afghan family or individual that is moving to Madison, they first need to find them housing. Sometimes, the agency is given just 24-48 hours to find an adequate place, which always poses a challenge.
“Anyone who knows Madison housing market, it’s really hard to find affordable, large apartments. Particularly those that are in a safe neighborhood and on a bus line because their families were coming without vehicles,” explained Berney.
Next, they need to get a physical, including a mental health screening, and get enrolled in medical benefits. Berney said they are eligible for BadgerCare, Medicaid, and FoodShare benefits.
Another step is to get their children enrolled in school and find English language classes for those in the family that need them.
Once they receive the adequate paperwork, JSS will help Afghans find jobs at locations they can access via public transportation. Berney explained that they are fortunate with the amount of Madison employers that are eager to hire Afghans and accommodate those who do not speak English.
Cultural differences have created some challenges in this process, as “in Afghanistan, women typically don’t work outside of the home. In the United States it’s much harder to keep a roof over your head if you have two parents and they’re not both working,” said Berney.
Berney added that language is a big obstacle in this whole process, as there are few interpreters in the U.S. that speak Dari and Pashto, and those that do often charge a lot of money for their services.
“We have recently hired a staff person which speaks Dari, which has also been helpful. The other thing is we use a language interpretation line quite a bit. There’s a phone number we can call and get an interpreter on the phone.”
THE EMOTIONAL TOLL
Berney and her staff have noticed the great emotional toll the sudden evacuation of Afghanistan has taken on many, if not all the Afghans resettling in Madison.
“A month before they were leaving home everything was normal. All of the sudden they’re giving up their homes, they’re leaving their families. Some people did not make it out of the country with their family intact.”
LEANING ON THE COMMUNITY
Now, JSS is working on getting more volunteers, including mentors, to support Afghan families.
“The mentors will help people with anything from this is how you ride the bus, this is how you navigate getting from your home to wherever, to opening a bank account and why it’s important to open a bank account.”
JSS will continue to support the Afghan families for the next 5 years, as they do with all refugees they resettle. This can eventually include helping them obtain citizenship.
WELCOMING OUR NEW NEIGHBORS
Berney said the Madison community has been incredibly supportive, welcoming, and eager to assist the Afghans in making this transition.
“I feel very fortunate that we have not gotten anyone to complain that we shouldn’t be doing this, that these are not Americans. People are very, very supportive. I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about the place that we live,” she said. “They’re making it possible so that other people will also feel like this can be their home.”
THE LEGAL PROCESS
A more immediate piece of the resettlement process for Afghan evacuees is obtaining the legal status they need to stay here permanently.
NBC15 did a recent report on the time-sensitive process of seeking asylum, which most Afghans living in Wisconsin will need to go through.
“One of the values of Jewish Social Services: welcoming a stranger. That’s true for Jewish Social Services, but quite honestly that is really true for Madison as a whole,” said Berney.
Copyright 2022 WMTV. All rights reserved.