WAUSAU – Seventy-five refugees from Afghanistan are expected to resettle in Wausau by the end of 2022, when the first families arrive this year. But there is a struggle to get things ready to welcome them, says Adam Van Noord, who oversees the resettlement effort.
Van Noord, director of the new multicultural community center in Wausau, said in terms of providing health care and education to the refugee families, the community is particularly well-organized, in part because of the city’s past experience in accepting refugee communities.
The primary challenge facing the resettlement organization is to address language barriers in communication with the refugees, who now come exclusively from Afghanistan, a change from the previous plan to bring families from a number of countries. Finding housing and hiring staff to organize efforts in the midst of a persistent shortage of labor provides further obstacles.
Van Noord said the U.S. State Department has a goal of moving 37,000 refugee families out of U.S. military bases, such as Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, which served as temporary homes for them, by February, increasing pressure on resettlement agencies.
The refugees began arriving at Fort McCoy from Afghanistan in late August as Afghanistan fell back under Taliban control after U.S. troops withdrew after a 20-year occupation.
The Taliban’s takeover has made the country dangerous for people who worked with the United States, as journalists and as members of civil society organizations. Women who were able to take on new positions in society under the US-backed government are under immediate threat from the Taliban.
Van Noord spoke to a Wausau Daily Herald reporter earlier this month about the progress his organization is making as they prepare for refugee families arriving in Wausau, as well as the obstacles they have encountered. Here’s what we know so far.
There is a need for additional staff at the Multicultural Assembly House
Van Noord, who was hired on October 22 by the Ethiopian Community Development Council Inc., the nonprofit organization that spearheads efforts to resettle refugees in Wausau, is the sole employee of the new Multicultural Community Center.
Van Noord says that before families can begin to be resettled here, three more staff must be hired to help with resettlement, finances and administration.
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Van Noord says, however, that the search for candidates has been slow and that the recruitment process has run into the same obstacles as many employers during the post-pandemic shortage of labor.
“We broadcast (the jobs) on all the major channels and syndicate the position and even work local networks and try to recruit organically,” he said. “It’s urgent to resettle people.”
On the other hand, for the arriving refugees, Van Noord says that they can count on many employment opportunities – an important consideration, as the refugees must be able to find work within 60 days of arriving in the city.
He said local employers such as Greenheck, a company with fans and air-conditioning equipment in Schofield, have expressed interest in possibly hiring incoming refugees. Northern Valley Industries Inc., a social enterprise that provides subcontractors to companies to provide employees with barriers to finding work, such as disability, could also help refugees find work in the area.
Bridge Community Health has a history of working with refugees
To meet the health care needs of incoming families, the Multicultural Community Center works with Bridge Community Health, a non-profit organization in Wausau that provides health care, dental care and mental health services to people who are not insured or underinsured.
Dakota Kaiser, the clinical director of behavioral health, said the clinic has a long history of working with refugees after Central Wisconsin’s Hmong population began arriving in the 1980s, and staff have learned important lessons through that experience.
One thing the clinic staff has learned is to “tap into the wisdom of society itself – to learn to let the refugees and their families tell us about themselves and their preferences,” instead of always telling the members of the refugee population what they need for, Kaiser said.
He said staff are well prepared to deal with the concerns of the new members of the community, including dealing with the traumatic events that may have preceded their arrival, and to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as soon as possible.
“We can help people recognize early on, ‘Hey, I’ve been through a lot.’ I have left my country and lived at a military base for several months. I’m in a new society now and I’m starting to have a stomach ache or feel that I’m feeling a little more anxious or on the edge. ‘ Trying to help them recognize these signs and teach people to reach out early, “is one way to do that,” he said.
Efforts to recruit translators are proving difficult
The primary languages of Afghanistan are Dari, Farsi, and Pashto – languages that have a limited number of speakers in central Wisconsin.
Van Noord says that to deal with this gap, resettlement agencies are trying to recruit translators from the refugees in Fort McCoy, but he says the newcomers will also have to make use of telephone translation services.
With these services, people will be able to call a number and receive real-time help with tasks like filling out forms.
“It’s not ideal,” Van Noord said. But people can use an on-demand interpreter via a cell phone, iPad or desktop computer for critical communication, he said.
The school district will use the immersion method in the classroom
Van Noord said the agency does not know how many of the refugees arriving in Wausau will be adults or children, but he said local schools will be ready to receive students who may arrive as part of family units.
He says the Wausau school district is working with the Marathon County Literacy Council to provide English as a second language tuition to children who may arrive from Afghanistan.
Van Noord says that the language barrier will not be such a big problem in that scenario because the teachers are trained in the method of immersion, which means that refugee children will communicate with teachers in English right from the start, without translation.
Chris Nyman, coordinator of professional learning for the Wausau school district, said families with school-age children should have them enrolled in a school within 30 days of their arrival.
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Then his priority is to get them to meet the staff, visit the building and get used to the school environment.
“Several years ago, we successfully navigated a large influx of refugees from Laos, the Hmong refugees. So having that experience behind us definitely helps us feel a little more prepared,” Nyman said.
He said from that experience that the district had learned things like different ESL approaches. In the past, he said, ESL students would be pulled out of class for short sessions with ESL teachers, but over time, school staff saw that this was not the most effective method of supporting language learning.
“We want to make all teachers feel that they have a role to play in supporting the acquisition of English and language. It is not just the responsibility of our ESL staff,” Nyman said.
Several factors complicate the search for housing
The refugees are set to arrive at a time when housing is in high demand across the country.
Not only that, but many people who arrive are expected to be part of large family units, making the search for apartments and houses that accommodate them much more challenging.
“And then, as luck would have it, we will probably take the highest number of cases in the middle of winter,” Van Noord said. “And if you know anything about the property management landscape, it’s the hardest time finding a place because no one wants to move.”
RELATED: Fort McCoy’s Afghan refugee population equals a small town. Here’s what we know about life at Wisconsin’s military base
Van Noord says part of what he has done is make phone calls to property managers in the area to see what will be available in the coming months and also give them information about the guaranteed funding that the refugee families will have for available, and remove any. stereotypes or misinformation that may be in the way of obtaining housing.
He said he was working to “address any concerns they may have about rent not being paid or anyone having to terminate a lease ahead of time, etc.”
Van Noord also said the agency was investigating short-term transitional housing options in the area.
RELATED: While Wausau prepares to receive refugees, here’s what you need to know about the resettlement plan
Renee Hickman is a member of the Report For America Corps based on the Wausau Daily Herald, which covers rural issues in Wisconsin. Contact [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @ReneeNHickman. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift for this reporting effort at WausauDailyHerald.com/RFA.
This article originally appeared in the Wausau Daily Herald: Wausau faces challenges as it prepares to resettle Afghan refugees