Milwaukee’s Congregation Shir Hadash is resettling refugees who were displaced by the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, in the Harambee/Riverwest area of Milwaukee.
Rabbi Michal Woll, the Shir Hadash spiritual leader, said that essentially, “Shir has adopted two families.” She hopes to take on more.
Advocates say that thousands of refugee families now in need of resettlement are living on American bases, after having worked with American forces in Afghanistan.
Interviewing in late December, Rabbi Michal Woll said she expected Congregation Shri Hadash and its member volunteers will have settled two families in a Harambee/Riverwest area duplex by Jan. 1, 2022. One family includes a baby born at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, a new American citizen, and volunteers have purchased a crib, she said.
“I will tell you, these days between politics and COVID, to have something immediate and tangible and interpersonal to do, feels like a gift,” Woll said. “It really does.”
Shir Hadash is doing the work in concert with local agencies, and it hopes to resettle more families.
“This is going really fast,” said Woll, interviewing by phone while painting a cabinet at the duplex. “We are supporting two families – we furnished their apartments, coordinating their needs to get them settled in Milwaukee.”
Woll said the refugees need access to employment opportunities, education, English language learning and government services. Shir Hadash volunteers and local agencies can assist.
Volunteers are gifting food, household items and furniture, so that the limited resources that come from the government can last longer, Woll said. Shir Hadash congregants who have worked on the duplex have included Susan Ellman, Davey Singer, David Weingrod and Kai Gardner Mishlove. The duplex landlord, Maureen Kidd, also volunteered.
Woll said she expects her congregation will assist with “transportation and acclimation and teaching them how to get familiar with the bus system and having conversations if they want to work on their English.”
“I think a lot of it is accompanying them when they have so many appointments and meetings, so they are not doing it alone,” she added.
Gardner Mishlove, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is a member of Shir Hadash and has been personally volunteering. Gardner Mishlove previously worked in refugee resettlement. She said she is available to provide information and assistance to any others who seek work on refugee issues.
The recently formed Wisconsin Jews for Refugees is also acting as an information clearinghouse and has assisted the Shir Hadash effort.
“It’s mentioned 36 times in the Torah that we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” said Linda Frank, one of the leaders for Wisconsin Jews for Refugees. “We’ve been strangers in all lands throughout our history. We have cherished the places that have welcomed us and even though it is not us, it is not Jewish immigration at this point, these are still strangers, and these are people who have committed to help our people, our United States, our country’s people, our country’s effort. Whatever one thinks of it or not, it was a 20-year effort, and these people risked their lives for us.”
Other Milwaukee efforts
According to Frank and Gardner Mishlove, there have been many other efforts within the Milwaukee-area Jewish community to assist Afghan refugees. Here’s a partial list:
- Volunteering to assist Lutheran Social Services, which is a resettlement agency
- Volunteering to help Hanan Refugee Relief, a Wisconsin Muslim group that is working to assist refugees
- A Jewish Community Relations Council donation drive, in cooperation with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
- The volunteerism of the local Salaam Shalom sisterhood
- Steven and Robin Arenzon of Wisconsin Knitwear donated hundreds of hats.
There has also been significant activism in Madison, where Jewish Social Services is affiliated with HIAS as a resettlement agency.
National Jewish efforts
HIAS, the national refugee agency formally known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has a program to empower informal groups of people from within Jewish communities, so that they can resettle refugees. Milwaukee groups have considered applying to the program, according to local refugee advocates.
HIAS created its “Welcome Circle” program for Jewish community volunteers, to help handle the huge number of Afghan refugees in need of resettlement. The HIAS program is a subset of a federal “Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans” that was announced in October by the US state department.
Refugee advocates say this nationwide Circle system is needed because of the large number of displaced Afghan families and because resettlement agencies lost staff and capacity during the Trump administration when refugee resettlement was sharply reduced.
“We’ve had significant interest so far,” said Isabel Burton, senior director of community engagement initiatives at HIAS, in mid-December. “We have around 15 congregations/coalitions around the country who have told us they are going to submit the application to become a Welcome Circle and we are in conversations with at least a further 20 that are strongly considering. Three circle applications have formally been submitted so far. This is only from our first wave of outreach.”