MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – More than 70 Afghans now live in Madison with the help of Dane County’s only refugee resettlement agency: Jewish Social Services.
Last year, the world saw 80,000 Afghans quickly evacuated from Kabul as US troops left the country and the Taliban took 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.
“The people of Madison are very excited to have refugees living here, but we’re still figuring out how to 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 relocating Afghans to Madison was sometimes overwhelming for their agency, given the high number of evacuees who suddenly needed their help finding housing, work, education, medical care, etc.
“Remember this was coming at a time when we had very few refugees coming to the United States. So our staff was quite small and suddenly we were relocating people in three months like we could in a year or a year and a half,” Berney said.
With the support of newly hired JSS staff, 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 seeking to resettle them – face.
When JSS comes in contact with an Afghan family or individual moving to Madison, they must first find them accommodation. Sometimes the agency only has 24-48 hours to find suitable accommodation, which is always a challenge.
“Anyone who knows the Madison real estate market, it’s really hard to find great affordable apartments. Especially those who are in a safe neighborhood and on a bus route because their families were coming without a vehicle,” Berney explained.
Then they must undergo a physical examination, including a mental health examination, and register for medical benefits. Berney said they were eligible for BadgerCare, Medicaid and FoodShare benefits.
Another step is to enroll their children in school and find English lessons for family members who need them.
Once they receive the proper documents, JSS will help Afghans find jobs in places they can access by public transport. Berney said they’re lucky with the number of employers in Madison willing to hire Afghans and accommodate those who don’t speak English.
Cultural differences have created difficulties in this process, as “in Afghanistan, women generally do not work outside 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 both not working,” Berney said.
Berney added that language is a big hurdle in this whole process, as there are few interpreters in the United States who speak Dari and Pashto, and those who do often charge a lot of money for their services.
“We recently hired a staff member who speaks Dari, which has also been helpful. The other thing is that we quite often use a language interpretation line. There is a phone number we can call and have an interpreter on the phone.
THE EMOTIONAL TOLL
Berney and his staff noticed the heavy emotional toll the sudden evacuation from Afghanistan took on many, if not all of the Afghans resettled in Madison.
“A month before they left home, everything was normal. All of a sudden they leave their home, they leave their family. Some people didn’t come out of the country with their families intact.
RELYING ON THE COMMUNITY
Now JSS is working to get more volunteers, including mentors, to support Afghan families.
“Mentors will help people with anything from how you take the bus, how you navigate to get from home to anywhere, to opening a bank account and why it is important to open a bank account.”
JSS will continue to support Afghan families for the next 5 years, as they do with all the refugees they resettle. This may possibly include helping them obtain citizenship.
WELCOMING OUR NEW NEIGHBORS
Berney said the Madison community has been incredibly supportive, welcoming and eager to help Afghans make this transition.
“I feel very lucky that no one is complaining that we shouldn’t be doing this, that they’re not Americans. People are very, very supportive. I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about where we live,” she said. “They make it possible for other people to also feel like it can be their home.”
THE LEGAL PROCESS
A more immediate part of the resettlement process for Afghan evacuees is getting the legal status they need to stay here permanently.
NBC15 recently released a report on the urgent asylum process, which most Afghans living in Wisconsin will have to go through.
“One of the values of Jewish Social Services: welcoming a stranger. That’s true for Jewish Social Services, but honestly, it’s really true for Madison as a whole,” Berney said.
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