Lack of interpretation, delays in benefits among challenges for Afghan refugees in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wisconsin – Local resettlement agencies are having an uphill battle to resettle Afghan refugees in Wisconsin, thanks to cuts or staff shortages and combined with a host of other pressures.

About 35 refugees have so far resettled in Madison, and about 150 have resettled across the country. Originally planned to resettle 399 refugees, Wisconsin’s chief refugee coordinator says the number is expected to increase, but does not yet know by how much.

The primary challenge, as it is nationwide, is affordable housing – partly due to a state and nationwide shortage, and partly due to economic and cultural factors that make it challenging to find housing for a single-income family that normally is greater than average. But in addition to housing, the resettlement of refugees in Wisconsin faces several other problems.

RELATED: An Affordable Housing Crisis: Afghan Refugees in Madison

“Building a community and then building a strong community – which is our goal – is not something that happens overnight,” said Bojana Zoric Martinez, Wisconsin’s Refugee Coordinator and Director of the Bureau of Refugee Programs. “It’s not something that happens easily.”

Lack of interpreting services

Wisconsin’s Afghan population is quite small: 313 refugees from Afghanistan resettled in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2019. More than a third settled in Dane County; most of these refugees have been in the last few years.

“We do not have as large an Afghan population as some of the other states may have, and therefore not much to deduct to help with interpretation and translation as it is,” Zoric Martinez explained. “There are not enough resources to meet demand.”

Organizations providing interpreting services in Madison say they have started receiving requests for Dari and Pashto services (the official languages ​​of Afghanistan), but so far it has not been successful in finding anyone who can provide that type. interpretation.

“We have spent weeks tracking down interpreters of Afghan languages ​​and we have had no luck,” a spokesman for the Interpreter’s Coop of Madison told News 3 Now. “It’s frustrating for us because we know there’s a need and customers are starting to ask about Pashto and Dari.”

Delays in social security cards, access to benefits

It used to be that a refugee in Madison could get an appointment the same day and leave with a Social Security card, Dawn Berney said. Now that process can take anywhere from three to six weeks.

Part of that is the delays and virtual meetings that were introduced to stem the spread of COVID-19, but this delay leaves many refugees in limbo while waiting for the card to access benefits like food stamps.

“It’s a big problem for families who have absolutely no income, and you can’t possibly rely on a pantry to get all your food,” Berney explained. “They’re stuck until they get the social security card they historically would get the day after they arrived in Madison.”

Gift certificates for affordable grocery stores like Woodmans help fill the gap, she said. Cash donations are another way to help cover their necessary necessities while waiting for basic benefits. (You can donate to Jewish social services here, or Open Doors for Refugees – a voluntary organization that works with JSS – here. Open Doors also collects gift cards for refugees.)

The state is working to help minimize the effects of delays in accessing benefits. Military base caseworkers are launching the initial application for both an employment permit and a social security card while refugees are still at the base, Zoric Martinez said, and applications are being handled by the International Organization for Migration. The final documents are sent to local resettlement agencies, six of which are in Wisconsin, connecting them with refugees when they arrive.

“The process will of course take some time. We know that some people have already received their employment permit cards and some people have not, said Zoric Martinez. “So that’s part of it.”

The delays also come after a year of the pandemic, in which social security regional offices have been closed and only accept urgent agreements, she noted. The state is working to overcome these challenges and maintains good relations with the state regional offices to do so.

Education, medical care, other challenges

Challenges, however, do not end with housing, language or services. The state head of refugee programs also points to appropriate medical care, medical screening and education for children that other struggles resettlement agencies will have to face.

All of this is happening after four years under the Trump administration, as local resettlement agencies reduced, and many are currently facing their own staff shortages.

“In the last four or five years, the resettlement programs for refugees have really been reduced because of the less favorable refugee and immigration policies that are coming our way,” Zoric Martinez said. “We do not have enough capacity or a lot of capacity to handle the population growth that we are looking at right now. So even though we are starting to rebuild capacity, we do not have that much manpower to handle some of the things we need.”

The Jewish Social Services in Madison employs about 16 people, but the agency says it is trying to hire at least five more. That’s the story across the state, Zoric Martinez said.

“It’s not something we’ve not dealt with in the past, and nothing that we have not overcome together as service providers of the refugee programs,” she noted. She even started her life in Wisconsin as a refugee from Bosnia, known as Yugoslavia, when she was 18 years old – did not speak English and learned to navigate the system. Now she helps others do the same and trusts the state’s ability to help refugees get back on their feet.

“Refugees tend to become self-sufficient very quickly, so it’s really important for us to contribute to their success.”

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