Extend a helping hand.
That’s exactly what faith communities in Kenosha are doing as they help Afghan refugees settle into new American homes.
On Tuesday, a family of eight moved into a home owned by a Bradford Unitarian Universalist, Beth Hillel Temple and Milburn United Church of Christ resettlement team in Lindenhurst, Illinois.
This week, two more adults will be assisted in accommodation by a resettlement team led by St Matthew’s Episcopal Church.
The Afghans are among thousands evacuated from their homes by US forces and its coalition partners after the Taliban took control of the capital on August 14 last year.
According to a Department of Homeland Security statement, “To date, more than 74,400 Afghan evacuees have joined new communities across the country. This resettlement effort is being led by the State Department in close coordination with more than 290 local resettlement organizations.”
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As part of Operation Allies Welcome, the refugees were housed at military installations across the country to acclimatize to the US before being resettled to permanent housing.
Kenosha’s team effort
Inspired to help, members of Kenosha’s faith communities began forming Afghan resettlement teams last fall.
One group consists of 23 volunteers from the Bradford UU/Beth Hillel Temple Resettlement Team along with members of the Milburn United Church of Christ who live in Kenosha.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church formed another team co-chaired by Jenny McCombe and Amy Parrish. This team has expanded to include church and parishioners, members of an episcopal church in Dousman and a family from the Albanian-American Islamic Center in Kenosha.
St. Matthew’s also organized a housing team with members from Congregations United to Save Humanity, McCombe said.
To ease the logistics of assisting families in need, the resettlement teams turned to Lutheran Social Services, one of six refugee resettlement agencies in Wisconsin.
“It all starts at the federal level. The State Department is working with resettlement agencies across the country,” said Jennifer Burns, head of the Bradford UU resettlement team. “These agencies then put out a call for co-sponsorship teams.”
“Bradford and Beth Hillel heard about it when LSS released the call, which was picked up by the Wisconsin Council of Church and Congregations United to Serve Humanity,” Burns said.
“Beth Hillel was devastated as soon as we heard that[the Afghans]could be relocated to the Kenosha-Racine area,” Rabbi Dena Feingold said.
Led by LSS, each team was briefed on what is needed to resettle and assist Afghan refugee families.
Each local resettlement team had to raise at least $6,000 to support their families. “There’s also a one-time allotment payment from the federal government,” Burns said.
“Co-sponsors take on the role of supporting the family for the first six months in a community,” she said.
Volunteers completed background checks and a driving record review for those who would also be required to drive, Burns said.
The next step for both groups was to start fundraising, looking for housing, and collecting furniture and other supplies needed to fully outfit the homes.
Beth Hillel fundraised and purchased items for the bedrooms that had been the temple’s designated furnishing area, Feingold said.
“Twelve volunteers have stepped forward to help the family prepare meals and get groceries,” Feingold said.
The best plans
The original plan called for each of Kenosha’s resettlement teams to resettle one family. “It recognizes that local communities support two families at once so that they can support each other,” Burns said.
As of this past Monday morning, the Bradford/Hillel group was well on its way to having a family of six, and the St Matthew’s team got their own soon after.
However, a spate of last-minute changes resulted in a major shift in both groups’ plans.
Late Monday, the Bradford UU team learned that their family had been transferred to a team in Racine and that they would be relocating the family of eight from the St Matthew team.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Bradford UU/Beth Hillel team had helped settle into a family of eight, six of whom are children under the age of 11.
“The generosity of our communities and the dedication of our team members allowed us to focus within 24 hours on serving a larger family than anticipated,” Burns said.
Two adult males have been assigned to the St Matthew team, who McCombe said will arrive next week.
Since the team has already raised enough money for “two households”, they will also receive a family in the coming weeks. “There’s a second wave coming,” she said.
Using a case plan prepared by Lutheran Social Services, resettlement team members carry out a variety of tasks to support the newcomers.
Volunteers will take family members for grocery shopping, doctor appointments, ESL classes and English practice. Some help them access halal food, food permitted under Islamic law.
“We’re here to be their community leaders,” Burns said. “We help them learn the bus system and make it easier for their children to enroll in school.”
Businesses also got involved, including local mover Otto Nelson and donations from a Milwaukee furniture store.
For security reasons, neither the names of the family members nor the addresses of their new homes may be published.
LSS spokesman Tim Muma said the Milwaukee-based agency has so far helped relocate about 180 Afghan families in five Wisconsin cities.
Photos: Madison Ballet presents The Nutcracker for Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy