Easing Transition for Fort McCoy Afghan Refugees


Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

The day before Thanksgiving, as I was driving home from Fort McCoy after finishing my third two-week session of volunteering, I was thinking about how wonderful it would be to bring evacuees back with me. I’d love for them to experience Door County. The outpouring of kindness, concern and support from people in the county has been huge. It has been an honor to carry everyone’s love and compassion to them every time I have returned. 

Contributors include friends old and new, and some I haven’t met. The common denominator is a desire to help make a difference in the Afghan refugees’ lives. We’ve all been connected through word of mouth, local churches and social media. Our collective contributions make a difference in their lives while they are at Fort McCoy and will go with them to their new home. 

They include: 

• Warm clothes, jackets, shoes and boots

• 600 pairs of mittens, socks and hats, along with many other hand-knitted items

• Fabric and more fabric, irons, sewing notions and 17 working sewing machines that keep both sewing centers open

• 240 school-supply kits and more toys, markers, crayons, paper, watercolor sets and children’s books

• Yarn, embroidery kits, crochet hooks and knitting needles that have enabled women to take classes on the base

When I first arrived, the people seemed full of trauma and fear. Language was and still is a barrier. 

I initially volunteered in one of the three children’s center areas. We played inside and outside with games, puzzles, maps, cars and crafts. A favorite of mine was to gather eight to 10 children around a table and play a matching game with cards. Every time a child found a match we would all cheer and clap with great enthusiasm. There was never an empty seat at that table. Such fun! 

Then I was assigned to the sewing center. It is a wonderful place, and I enjoy being part of a positive experience in their lives. 

Women and men are given sewing-center tickets by their barracks commander. They hand out 20 tickets for 20 sewing machines and three yards of fabric. Without any patterns, they create their traditional dress: pants, long shirt or a dress, and a veil. It’s been amazing to watch. 

The center goes through about 1,200 yards of fabric per week and has become so popular that another center just opened on the other side of the base. Door County sewing machines helped make that happen.

Fort McCoy is just one camp with refugees, and all camps have the same goal of finding homes for the 65,000 here in the United States. As these people are being cleared to move on to family and friends, those without such connections are waiting for sponsors to help make this happen. Plus, there are still people living in different countries waiting to make their way here. 

Wisconsin initially had 13,000 Afghans living here, and now the population is down to around 7,000. The logistics of moving 13,000 people forward safely – the transportation, housing, connections and health care such as vaccinations – aren’t insurmountable; they just take time. 

Imagine the refugees’ sense of relief at being alive, accompanied by a huge sense of loss. Imagine the fear of a completely unknown future, a new language, new culture – the list just goes on. It’s overwhelming. 

There are refugees all over the world who are on the move to find stability and safety. We can be of help right here in Wisconsin by trying to understand the trauma they have all been through and knowing that it continues for many as the Taliban rules the country with violence, and that death, starvation and unemployment are prevalent. Many have family and friends still there. 

Remember that these people left Afghanistan with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Nothing else. My hope for these families is that they find a community to live in with support, housing, jobs and education. Also, that they are being given the opportunity to join the melting pot with respect and dignity. 

Thank you all so much for your help and your donations. Your support means the world to me. Through various connections, we have made a big difference in their lives. 

Catholic Charities in La Crosse is the lead agency for volunteer coordination. Save Our Allies is very involved at Fort McCoy and accepts donations at the Sparta Armory.