MADISON — Following the departure of U.S. military troops from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, U.S. officials, through Operation Allies Welcome, have helped thousands of Afghan refugees, including those who worked on behalf of the United States.
Many Afghan families have been transported to Fort McCoy, located in the Diocese of La Crosse, and an assortment of international, national and local partners, including the state’s Catholic Charities agencies, are on hand to assist with care and processing. More than 7,000 refugees are currently at the base in Monroe County, according to Fort McCoy officials.
“When we learned families would be coming to Fort McCoy, which is located within our diocese, we knew we could help,” said Karen Becker, development director for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse. “We immediately went into action collecting donations. Most of our help is focused on providing basic care and comfort to those who will be living at the base for the weeks and months to come.”
All five Wisconsin Catholic Charities agencies are collaborating with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services (MRS). The USCCB will address legal, morale and wellness concerns on the base, as well as the immediate basic needs of Fort McCoy’s newest residents.
Afghan arrivals are housed in Fort McCoy’s barracks and meals are provided by the U.S. military. Beyond food and shelter, there are a number of personal care and clothing items needed. New items, such as child and adult diapers, wipes, masks, sweatpants, socks, rain ponchos, and infant bodysuits (onesies) and sleepers are requested.
Catholic Charities directors held a conference call on Friday, Sept. 3, to discuss their relief efforts, said Karmen Lemke, Green Bay Catholic Charities executive director.
“We continue to point people to our website for volunteers and donations,” she said. “We are going to be starting a collection throughout the diocese for people who want to donate items.” The agency is still working on details of how a collection will be structured.
“What we don’t have in place yet is the full mechanism, in terms of where the collections are going to be held, if each parish should be encouraged to do their own” and how items will be transported to Fort McCoy, she added.
Many people have reached out to Catholic Charities agencies with offers of help. “We are already receiving calls with offers of housing and employment,” said Ricardo Cisneros, chief operating officer of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “What many don’t realize is that very few arriving at Fort McCoy will remain in Wisconsin permanently.”
Afghan refugees or visa applicants must complete a legal process before permanently relocating within the country. The families at Fort McCoy will remain there as they complete this process, but most will go to places where they can join other family members or an existing Afghan community. Green Bay’s Catholic Charities is one of the agencies that may be called on to assist with local resettlement.
“We are in the readiness stage for resettlement,” said Lemke. “There is a level of legislation and congressional action that needs to take place before they start to move families to these communities. The feeling is, very few families will stay in Wisconsin.”
According to Lemke, Catholic Charities agencies are focusing on helping create what are called “morale, wellness and recreation (MWR) centers.”
“They’ve got the first one up and running and it sounds like the model is very successful,” she said. “A lot of activity (is offered for) women and children to be spending their days. A lot of the needs we are trying to support are those MWR centers, so everything from games, activities and sewing.”
Chris Hennemeyer, USCCB MRS consultant, said individuals with legal, social work, counseling, education and immigration or refugee experience are encouraged to volunteer.
Volunteers will need to go through security and background checks, as well as comply with COVID-19 mitigation measures, including vaccination. Catholic Charities agencies are asking volunteers to make at least a two-week commitment. Interested individuals can sign up to volunteer at the Green Bay Catholic Charities website, catholiccharitiesgb.org/afghan-assistance.
“It’s certainly been a humbling experience,” said Lemke. “It’s exciting, nerve wracking and also something we take a lot of pride in. My message is ‘thank you’ to folks coming forward in all different ways to help. This isn’t a sprint and so we are here for the long haul.”
In addition, La Crosse Catholic Charities has created online gift registries through Amazon Smile and Target, where donors can purchase needed items and have them shipped directly to the agency. Visit cclse.org/Afghanistan-refugee-assistance to donate.
While monetary donations are needed, Catholic Charities leadership stresses the importance of making “unrestricted” donations that allow agencies to purchase items as needs arise or to meet operational costs, like transporting care items, staff and volunteers to Fort McCoy.
To make an unrestricted donation, officials said do not include language such as “for refugee resettlement” with a monetary gift. “Such donations could be viewed as being restricted to relocation efforts, which have yet to begin at Fort McCoy,” said Becker.