The central Wisconsin city’s first Afghan refugees arrived in late December, with as many as 85 set to be settled there.
What began as an idea that surfaced during a church Bible study discussion in March became reality on Dec. 29 when two Afghan families forced to flee for their lives from their homeland departed airplanes in their new home in central Wisconsin.
First a family of four arrived at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, followed two hours later by a family of eight. Parents and children exited planes into their new cold surroundings and were met with a warm reception from a couple dozen supporters, some carrying signs of welcome.
As Matiullah Matie exited the airplane with his family and entered the airport, the businessman who had to flee for having helped American soldiers in Afghanistan, was both tired and surprised.
The fatigue was understandable. Four months earlier Matie, his wife, and six children barely escaped the Taliban seeking to kill him before making their way to Germany and then Fort Pickett in Virginia before this flight to Mosinee, a small city just south of Wausau, where, with the help of the US State Department, as many as 85 Afghan refugees will be resettled this year.
Matie’s surprise stemmed from the crowd gathered to welcome him and his family. As he met with person after person wishing him and his family well and offering assistance, Matie said he felt at home despite his new surroundings.
“It felt like the people came out for me, for my family,” he recalled of his initial experience in his new home. “It felt like this is the kindness of the people of Wausau.”
Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg had other plans for her birthday. But when she learned the first Afghan refugees to be resettled in her hometown were scheduled to arrive that evening, she knew she had to be there. She missed the first refugee family’s arrival as they showed up earlier than scheduled. As she watched Matie’s family enter the airport, she said she felt both excited and relieved.
“Knowing that they are in a safe place after the danger they faced, that is important,” Rosenberg said. “They get to be one of us.”
The idea of bringing refugees to Wausau is a combination of faith and persistence.
During a Bible study session in March among First United Methodist Church of Wausau members, the idea of resettling refugees arose. The church’s leader, the Rev. Rebecca Voss, subsequently reached out to local leaders to see how they could make that happen.
Numerous conversations later, Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) conducted a site study of Wausau to determine if it could meet refugees’ needs. The State Department approved Wausau as a resettlement site, and New Beginnings and ECDC established a presence to prepare for refugees.
“We did not know about how the refugee system works,” Voss said. “We didn’t know a lot of this. But there was a desire there in this community to help people who need a home, and we decided to move forward with that.”
‘Now it Begins’
When she saw a text message on her phone, Gwen Paul’s day suddenly kicked into overdrive.
Adam VanNoord, director of the ECDC center in Wausau, texted Paul at 6:30 a.m. Dec. 28, telling her, “Three families are arriving in Wausau tomorrow night. Now it begins.” ECDC is one of nine US agencies approved by the State Department to resettle refugees.
Paul, executive director of New Beginnings for Refugees, a nonprofit formed to assist with refugee resettlement in Wausau, responded, “What?!? Now it begins.”
The duo then sent a series of messages to figure out how best to accommodate the refugees quickly. Some New Beginnings workers were on vacation for the Christmas holiday. Those who were working scrambled to sign leases for apartments for the three families to live in, to get already gathered supplies to those locations, and take care of other tasks.
With few people available to help, Paul took an active role, shoveling snow from in front of one home and carrying furniture into it. She worked to obtain and sign leases.
“It was all a wild scramble,” Paul said, noting the third family did not end up being sent to Wausau. “But we knew we just had to make it happen.”
ECDC and New Beginnings had dealt with tight time constraints before. When Wausau received designation from the State Department in July to house refugees, the city was seen as a possible site to house refugees from a half-dozen different nations, but not from Afghanistan, people associated with the original plan said.
Things changed when President Joe Biden brought troops home, ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan. The Taliban, emboldened by a deal made with former President Donald Trump in Feb. 2020 that released some 5,000 prisoners, overran Afghan security forces in a summer offensive that restored them to power and led to a lengthy US airlift that eventually rescued 75,000 Afghans, many of whom, like Matie, had worked with Americans and were now in peril. Wausau was designated as a host site for displaced Afghan residents, and ECDC subsequently set up an office there.
Initially, New Beginnings was told Afghan refugees would begin arriving in Wausau within weeks of the Taliban takeover. The agency worked with state and federal officials to get ready. However, those plans were delayed—and organizers received some breathing room to prepare—as refugees at US military bases first needed to be immunized against COVID-19.
“We like to refer to that time as our fire drill,” Margaret Pagoria, New Beginnings program coordinator, said of the earlier plans for refugees that were delayed. “Having gone through that helped us get ready for the new families that have arrived.”
Concerns for Refugees
Voss said she is heartened by the fact that so many people have voiced support and have donated clothing and other items of all sorts for refugees. “You can really feel a sense of support for what we’re doing here,” she said.
But Voss and others involved with the resettlement effort said they’re also worried about possible negativity toward refugees. They recall well-publicized pushback at attempts last year to garner approval of a “Community for All” proclamation by the Marathon County Board, during which some community members espoused racist views.
Voss acknowledged receiving comments about refugees based on misinformation. “I hear things like, ‘How do you know that they’re safe? How do you really know that they can be trusted?’” she said. “I believe that they can help us grow in our own sense of community, our own sense of faith, our own sense of belonging and being part of a productive and positive society.”
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Paul and Pagoria said they too have received negative feedback related to refugees being resettled in Wausau. They said they will continue to focus on education about who the refugees are and the benefits they bring to the community.
“The whole idea is to get [refugees] to a sustainable level of success,” Paul said. “We want them to have enriched lives and feel a sense of belonging.”
Rosenberg said she also worries about refugees. People who have had to escape from dangerous situations shouldn’t have to deal with extra challenges such as prejudice in addition to having to adapt to a new culture, new food, and a new language, she said.
“I’m a little nervous. We’ve had our difficulties talking about equity and diversity here,” Rosenberg said. “There are some nerve-wracking things about that.”
Hope for the Future
Despite those concerns, people associated with refugee resettlement said they’re optimistic about Afghan people finding success in their new home.
Rosenberg said she enjoyed conversing with Matie on the night he arrived in Wausau and has been invited to further discussions over tea. Paul and Pagoria draw inspiration from the large stash of items donated for refugees arriving in Wausau.
Voss recalls the emotions she felt when the first Afghan refugees arrived in Wausau, when her eyes teared up as they walked down an airport hallway after having endured so much on their journey there. She marvels at how a Bible study session has led to opportunities and hope.
“It’s so amazing the way that so many people are coming together to support this effort,” Voss said. “It’s truly helping rebuild a sense of community that I think we lost part of with COVID and what is happening with politics. In a sense, I think this feels like a new beginning.”
Matie is hoping for a new beginning too. He and his family barely made it out of Afghanistan alive as the Taliban sought reprisals against him. Despite challenges associated with resettling in a new culture, he said he and his family are grateful for the opportunity.
“We will have a place to live. We will have food. My children will be able to go to school,” he said. “We can rebuild our lives here, without living in danger. We are safe, and there is nothing better than that.”
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