Afghan refugee resettlement effort aided by local organizations

Employees at Milwaukee-based Wantable helped sort clothing to donate to Afghans staying at Fort McCoy.
Employees at Milwaukee-based Wantable helped sort clothing to donate to Afghans staying at Fort McCoy. Credit: Wantable

Last updated on December 20th, 2021 at 02:35 pm

Evacuees from Afghanistan began arriving at Fort McCoy in Monroe County in late August, with the total swelling to roughly 13,000 as of early October.

Several Milwaukee-area organizations have helped funnel donations to the Army base and are preparing to assist in the refugee resettlement process. 

The Milwaukee chapter of Hanan Refugee Relief Group is among them. In recent years, prior to the arrival of thousands of Afghans in Wisconsin this summer, the group has been involved in helping resettle about 20 Afghan refugees in the Milwaukee area. When it learned that a large group would be arriving in Wisconsin, HRRG spearheaded a large-scale donation drive to provide items needed at Fort McCoy. 

“Many were coming with just the shirts on their back, they came with open sandals. So, we’ve been able to provide, in bulk amounts, winter jackets, shoes, culturally appropriate clothing, prayer rungs,” said Sheila Badwan, the leader of the HRRG Milwaukee chapter. 

A particular focus is on ensuring children – who make up just under half of the group at the Army base – have the items they need, Badwan said. 

While it is focused on donations in the short-term, the group is also preparing for the eventual resettlement effort. In the coming months, the Afghan refugees are expected to be connected with nonprofit organizations across the country that will help them find housing and jobs. HRRG is preparing to assist organizations in finding furniture and household items for those who settle in Wisconsin. In total, about 400 refugees are expected to be placed in the state. 

Badwan noted that federal refugee benefits are limited in their duration and amount, and many refugees come to the U.S. with very few possessions in the first place. 

“It’s really hard, especially for single mothers, to adapt within that (benefits) period,” she said, noting that refugees are expected to find a job, learn English if they don’t already know the language and adapt to the culture in a matter of months. 

HRRG is preparing to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to Afghan refugees, as it has in the past for Syrian refugees, among other services. 

“We do a lot of relief efforts throughout the year, such as emergency rent, emergency food boxes – during the pandemic, that’s really what we focused on,” Badwan said. “… Sometimes people don’t really realize what isn’t covered under just normal government assistance. Families aren’t able to get diapers, that’s not covered by food stamps. Sometimes people don’t realize there are people who really do struggle. And the language barrier, that’s a really big thing for these families if they don’t know the language.” 

West Allis-based Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan is also preparing to aid in the resettlement effort. 

In total, Wantable donated seven pallets of clothing to Afghan refugees.
In total, Wantable donated seven pallets of clothing to Afghan refugees.
Credit: Wantable

Its refugee resettlement team was already preparing to triple the number of individuals it serves this year compared to last, following President Joe Biden’s raising of the cap on refugee admissions to the U.S. LSS budgeted to help 300 refugees this year, up from 100 last year, according to Hector Colón, president and chief executive officer of LSS of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. 

“On top of that, we have this emergency situation with people from Afghanistan, and we’ve raised our hands to be able to serve them,” he said. 

LSS is aiming to raise an additional $500,000 to fund the resettlement of 100 Afghans in the area, which would cover the cost of housing assistance, food, clothing and basic needs for several months. Colón said LSS aims to find individuals permanent housing as quickly as possible, typically within 90 days.

“LSS really is honored and privileged to … serve these individuals who are fleeing war and persecution,” Colón said. “It is also very inspiring how quickly these individuals get integrated into our society.” 

In its typical, day-to-day work, Milwaukee-based online fashion retailer Wantable Inc. is focused on curating fashionable clothing, with the help of technology, and sending items for customers to try on at home. 

But during times of crises over the past two years, the company has been stepping outside its normal routine and stepping up to help those in need. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Wantable leveraged its logistics and fulfillment operation to connect at-home sewing volunteers with the spike in demand for face masks. Throughout this summer and fall, the company has used it excess supply of new clothing to donate to Fort McCoy. 

Abigail Gilman, brand communication manager for Wantable, had previously worked with HRRG to assist Syrian refugees during their resettlement a few years ago. When she heard about Afghan evacuees arriving at the Wisconsin base, she and her coworkers reached out to see how they could help. 

Wantable employees and representatives from HRRG and the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition partnered to sort through the company’s inventory to find items that were most suitable for the women and men at Fort McCoy, including sweaters, pants, dresses and jackets. About 30 employees helped with the sorting effort. 

“The connections (to HRRG and MMWC) have been really helpful,” Gilman said, noting that the relief group transported the donations from Milwaukee to a drop-off location in Sparta. “They have the access and the knowledge about what different items are needed. So, they’ve been able to help facilitate that.” 

The remainder of clothing items were donated to Meta House, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization that serves women in recovery. 

To date, the company has donated seven pallets of clothing to Afghan refugees. 

Gilman said one of the benefits of working at a startup is the ability to respond nimbly when needs arise in the community. After the idea was first pitched, Wantable chief executive officer and founder Jalem Getz signed on immediately, and volunteers began sorting clothing within a few days, she said.  

“Everyone is invested in making an impact on our local community and, with our customers being across the country, making an impact on those communities too,” Gilman said.  

Individuals and corporations can help the resettlement effort by purchasing items off of HRRG’s Amazon Wishlist, making a financial donation to LSS’s campaign, or by signing up as a volunteer with HRRG or LSS to assist families when they arrive in the community. 

“It really takes a village, and the community support makes a difference,” Badwan said.

This story is part of the 2022 BizTimes Media Giving Guide. See the entire publication here:

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