Wisconsin dioceses extend welcome to Afghan refugees

Catholic Charities agencies take lead in helping refugees settle here

An Afghan refugee mother works on an art project with children at one of the “morale, wellness and recreation” (MWR) centers established at Fort McCoy, located in the Diocese of La Crosse. The U.S. Army facility has been a temporary home to Afghan refugees since the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. (Photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment | Courtesy U.S. Army)

Monroe County, within the Diocese of La Crosse, became  a temporary home to more than 12,500 Afghans who have been displaced from their homeland as a consequence of political turmoil and unrest. Currently, the number of Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy is estimated at about 7,000.

For a moment, imagine what it would be like to be so far from your country. A stranger in a foreign land, where the language and customs are different, being unsure and perhaps a little fearful about what is going to happen next. “Where will I go?” “How will I be treated?”

When Afghan families and individuals, escaping from Taliban forces, started arriving in the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services team worked closely with several governmental and nongovernmental organizations to provide resettlement services. Once the refugees started coming to Wisconsin, the USCCB reached out to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse for help.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse, being closest to the Afghan families’ temporary housing, immediately mobilized its resources to provide for the basic needs of the new arrivals.

“It happened so quickly,” said Karen Becker, director of marketing for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse. “It was Thursday, Aug. 26, when Gov. (Tony) Evers announced that Afghan refugees would be arriving in Monroe County and, being in the heart of the Diocese of La Crosse, I knew that we would be called upon to help in some way.”

Becker decided to use social media and the Catholic Charities website to ask people to sign up to help.

“My phone immediately lit up. It has a direct link to our website. By the time I got back on Monday, we had 500 people from across the state wanting to be part of this welcoming mission. It was actually the most amazing, immediate response that I have ever seen,” she said.

“Soon afterward, I realized we needed more help, so I reached out to the other Catholic Charities of Wisconsin and the support I received made real the mission of Catholic Charities,” said Becker.

Catholic Charities regularly provides essential services to immigrants and refugees as part of its mission as a matter of respecting human dignity.

At the same time, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse and Bishop James Powers of Superior joined together to lend their dioceses’ financial support to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse. The bishops also urged Catholics to make donations to Catholic Charities, or to support similar diocesan and parish collections.

These monetary donations make it possible to provide socialization, wellness, recreation opportunities and legal assistance for Afghan guests as they go through the immigration process.

After the initial response, it became clear that Catholic Charities needed to set up activity centers, as Afghan guests awaited the immigration process. In addition to two legal centers, Catholic Charities set up centers that focus on “morale, wellness and recreation” — MWR for short. One example is the creation of a sewing center for women.

“One of our volunteers brought three sewing machines that she thought would be a good activity for the women,” said Becker. “It was so popular that we decided to open a sewing center and added 10 machines. Now we have two sewing centers with 60 machines and it is full every day with women sewing without patterns or measuring tapes: just picking out fabric, sewing and, in about two hours, they have a garment to wear.”

Kathy and Gregg Hansel and Ginny Williams are three of the many volunteers who donate their time to meet with Afghans at the MWR centers. 

Gregg and Ginny both have backgrounds in education. Gregg works with children, while Ginny and Kathy work with both women and children. Each MWR building has two floors. The lower floor is for children and the upper floor is for women and small children.

Ginny has had many interesting experiences working with both the women and children. She said she knew she would be comfortable with the children because of her teaching background, but was unsure about working with the women because of the cultural differences.

Ginny tells of the time she met a young woman who was one of the college student interpreters.

“She started talking about her trip to the U.S. There was a lull in the conversation,” Ginny recalled. “I told her I was a teacher of young children and a school counselor. When I said that, her eyes just filled with tears and she just looked at me. She said it just feels so good to talk to somebody. I’ve held this in for so long.”

Meeting the needs of such a large number of people requires many hands. A number of agencies and groups work together with Catholic Charities to provide volunteers and solicit donations of money, supplies, clothing, personal care items, etc. The biblical call to welcome the stranger or sojourner is clear: he or she should be welcomed, embraced and loved.

Used with permission. Copyright Catholic Life: Diocese of La Crosse, all rights reserved.