Jewish Social Services of Madison is expecting to resettle about 25 refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the rapid regime change in that country.
“The state of Wisconsin is supposed to be receiving 399 Afghans through the crisis that’s currently unfolding. Dane County we will be getting 25,” said Executive Director Dawn Berney, referring the collapse of the Afghan government in August after the United States made plans to fully withdraw troops. Berney interviewed in late September.
Jewish Social Services is one of six agencies in the state that resettles refugees, and it is the only agency that resettles in Dane County. Jewish Social Services does the work as an affiliate of HIAS, an international nonprofit formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS has a long history of resettling Jews but has broadened its mission.
When asked why Jewish Social Services of Madison takes up this cause, Berney answered with a common refrain from HIAS: “We used to do this work because they were Jewish. Now we do the work because we are Jewish.”
The 25 Afghans to be resettled in Dane County will either have had a connection with the U.S. military, or a military contractor, or will be considered humanitarian parolees, Berney said. They are likely already at U.S. bases, awaiting their transfers. Those connected with the military will be resettled under the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, a federal program designed to assist those who assisted the United States. The “parolees” will be people temporarily in America and awaiting a determination.
How resettlement works
Jewish Social Services has staff dedicated to resettlement, with most funding coming from HIAS and the state of Wisconsin. It resettles people with significant assistance from Open Doors for Refugees, a Madison nonprofit.
“Once we know that we are taking a case and we know when they are arriving, if we have enough time, we will find them an apartment that is appropriately sized,” Berney said. “We fully furnish and stock the apartment so that it has all of the toiletries and all the furniture. We stock the pantry with a week’s worth of food. When they arrive in Madison, there is a culturally appropriate home-cooked meal waiting for them.”
Jewish Social Services also helps refugees with government paperwork, helps them find jobs and helps them enroll in English language classes if needed. It helps any children enroll in school.
Typically, the small nonprofit learns of a family coming to Dane County with anywhere from two days to a couple of weeks notice.
For example, as Berney was being interviewed in late September, she was awaiting a refugee family coming through a different refugee program. The notice was about a week before arrival. Some rapid work found an apartment quickly, but not in time for an immediate move in. “So we will be putting them in an extended stay hotel for two nights,” she said.
It’s not completely clear how government refugee rules will apply to the impending arrival of the 25 Afghans, but at this time it seems they may not be eligible for cash assistance or food stamps, she said. Thus, if you’d like to be helpful, gift card donations are welcome. Either staff will use a card for refugee needs or literally hand a card over to a refugee family.
“We don’t have storage space for stuff,” Berney said.
The most helpful gift cards will be for Target, Woodmans, Walmart, Burlington Coat Factory or ten-packs for Madison buses, Berney said. Send to: Jewish Social Services, 6434 Enterprise Lane, Madison, WI 53719. Questions: (608) 442-4081.
“I really appreciate Jewish Social Services and also Open Doors for this apartment and all the stuff,” said an Afghan refugee named Khalid, speaking at a Sept. 1, 2021, 50th Apartment Celebration put on by Open Doors, as recorded by Spectrum News 1. Khalid, a special immigrant visa recipient and a translator, has one daughter and one son and has been in the United States for several years now.
100 more refugees
Jewish Social Services settles refugees regularly. They can come in waves, though there were far fewer refugees coming during the Trump administration, Berney said
Between May 28 and the end of August, Jewish Social Services resettled almost 50 refugees. For a small agency, that’s a lot all at once. Many of these recent refugees have come from either Afghanistan, fleeing even before the regime change, or from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition to the coming 25 refugees related to the Afghanistan regime change, often airlifted out, another 100 refugees from various places are to arrive in Dane County over the course of the next year.
“We’re already a resettlement agency so we had already agreed to resettle 100 refugees from all over the world,” Berney said. Some could come from Afghanistan.
“The Jewish value of welcoming the stranger is such an important value for Jewish Social Services,” Berney said. It’s important to care for the vulnerable, she said, “and who is more vulnerable than refugees?”