Yee Leng Xiong, a Wausau County supervisor, speaks during a May 17, 2021, press conference in Wausau declaring the city a welcoming place for all people as Wausau Mayor, Katie Rosenberg, far left, and Marathon County Supervisor William Harris listen. (Photo courtesy of the Wausau mayor’s office)
Yee Leng Xiong, a Wausau County supervisor, speaks during a May 17, 2021, press conference in Wausau declaring the city a welcoming place for all people as Wausau Mayor, Katie Rosenberg, far left, and Marathon County Supervisor William Harris listen. (Photo courtesy of the Wausau mayor’s office)

Wausau will take in as many as 85 Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban takeover of their home country.

Wednesday’s announcement that as many as 85 Afghan refugees could be resettled in Wausau is welcome news to supporters of that action, who say those newcomers will add to the city’s diversity and culture while helping fill jobs in a local economy still recovering from coronavirus pandemic-induced setbacks. 

The Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), based in Arlington, Virginia said it is preparing for the first 10 refugees to be resettled in the Marathon County city of nearly 40,000 by December, with another 75 possibly moving there by September 2022. As part of that effort, ECDC officials said they plan to open a multicultural community center in Wausau.

“This is a huge opportunity for our community in many ways,” Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said. “There are so many benefits.”

However, Rosenberg and others who back refugee resettlement in Wausau acknowledge that accommodating people who fled their native home last month when the authoritarian Taliban government took over after the withdrawal of the US military will present logistical challenges and require additional resources.

The resettlement effort, in which ECDC will work with the federal Department of State, could face another hurdle: opposition to Afghan refugees by some, given racial and political tensions that have flared in the Wausau area since summer 2020. 

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg speaks during a May press conference in which she declared the city is one that “accepts, celebrates, and appreciates diversity” and condemns hate-based activity and treatment. The proclamation Rosenberg read was in reaction to the yearlong inability of the Marathon County Board to approve a similar resolution. (Screenshot via WAOW-TV)

The Marathon County Board in August decided against approving a “Community for All” resolution affirming the county as a place welcoming to people of all races and sexual orientation. The issue prompted contentious debate for more than a year and attracted national media attention after racist comments were made during those discussions.

The Wausau City Council approved a similar resolution. Rosenberg said she is hopeful Afghan refugees will be welcomed to their new homes, but she realizes there may be setbacks, given previous racial tensions.  

“There will be some negativity. I definitely know that,” Rosenberg told UpNorthNews. “But ultimately this is a good thing. We want to be welcoming. This is our opportunity to show that we are welcoming.”

RELATED: After ‘Community for All’ Resolution Fails Again, Progressive Marathon County Officials Worry ‘This Might Set Us Back’

Wausau has been the site of previous refugee resettlements. Hmong people settled there following the end of the war in Vietnam, and the city is now home to more than 4,700 Hmong residents—about 12% of its population, the highest percentage of any Wisconsin and US city

While he acknowledges concerns about potential racist pushback against Afghan refugees given controversy surrounding the “Community for All” measure, Yee Leng Xiong, executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau, said he is optimistic most people will welcome the newcomers. 

“There is no way we can control every individual’s thoughts,” he said. “But this effort is being supported by many community organizations. I see people coming together to support the refugees coming here.”

ECDC officials said the agency’s decision to resettle refugees in Wausau and to open a multicultural center there was made in large part because of the support of city officials and numerous community organizations for Afghans relocating there. Refugee resettlement plans have not yet been fully approved, the agency said in a press release Wednesday, but the multicultural center has.

“ECDC’s proposal to resettle refugees in Wausau has been driven by the community’s interest in welcoming newcomers. We will continue to work closely with community stakeholders to establish the program and welcome the first arrivals,” ECDC Director of Community Engagement Jessica Chapman said.

To make sure each refugee family has the support needed to successfully transition to Wausau, ECDC—one of nine national resettlement agencies—plans to link them with people and agencies, Chapman said. 

ECDC plans to resettle about 3,100 refugees in 17 US communities. Nearly 13,000 Afghan refugees are currently at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin awaiting resettlement.

‘This is Our Moment’

In March, five months before the Afghan citizens who aided the US during the war in Afghanistan fled after reinstatement of Taliban rule, a pastor at a Wausau church asked Rosenberg about the possibility of starting a refugee resettlement effort.

That conversation spurred further discussions, Rosenberg said, and grew into talks involving a broad group of community organizations and businesses. As support grew, the mayor contacted ECDC about the possibility of Wausau serving as home for resettling refugees. 

“Then the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan happened, and it was like this is our moment,” Rosenberg said. “We were already in the process, and then the timing just came together at the same time.”

Now city officials and organizations will focus on working with ECDC to facilitate resettlement as best they can. That endeavor will involve working through numerous issues, Rosenberg said, such as preparing schools for Afghan students, finding language translators, and ensuring that refugees have such basics as food, clothing, and housing. 

Xiong said he believes community leaders can learn from past Hmong resettlement efforts to help Afghan refugees get acclimated to their new homes as effectively as possible. He hopes Hmong success stories can pave the way for Afghans in Wausau. 

“When the Hmong came to Wausau, there were people who questioned whether we would contribute to this community,” Xiong said. “But the Hmong have been extremely important to Wausau and central Wisconsin. These [Afghan] refugees will contribute to this community as well. We need to make sure we give them the tools and the support to do so.”

Rosenberg believes the experiences and culture Afghans will bring to the Wausau area will make it a richer place. Accepting people fleeing for their safety because they helped US military forces during the war in their homeland “is our patriotic responsibility,” she said.   

“These are people who helped our troops during the war,” Rosenberg said. “I can’t imagine turning our backs on these families. I have the opportunity to be welcoming. As a human, that is also my responsibility.”