Jewish Social Services has resettled about 75 Afghan refugees in Madison since the government rapidly fell there in August.
“These are people who are desperate to get out of Afghanistan,” said Executive Director Dawn Berney, who leads the Madison Jewish agency. Most refugees were former government officials, journalists or families who could prove they were not members of the Taliban. Berney estimates that half the refugees are children.
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.”
Despite prior reports, Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy has not been a major source of refugees for Jewish Social Services. The refugees have generally come from temporary housing on military bases outside Wisconsin, Berney said. Jewish Social Services is assigned refugees who have a family member or friend already in Madison, so they can have a community when they arrive.
“Even though we do now have a number of Afghans living in Madison, the community is still really small and new,” said Berney.
Jewish Social Services faced multiple challenges when the Afghan regime fell in August.
“We had a skeleton staff,” said Berney, as they had few arrivals in the years leading up to the regime’s fall.
Getting the refugees clothing was a top priority, she said. “Normally, refugees come with some stuff, but most of these refugees came with the clothes on their backs and whatever was donated to them when waiting for resettlement at the bases,” Berney said.
Another challenge was that many of the refugees came to Madison with large families, in some cases needing an apartment to accommodate seven people. This posed a unique problem as most large apartments in Madison are very expensive and are geared towards college students, according to Berney.
Due to the rushed nature of their evacuation from Afghanistan, most of the refugees arrived without proper paperwork, making it difficult for Jewish Social Services to enroll them in benefits right away. That meant the refugees had to wait longer to get food stamps, healthcare coverage and cash assistance.
“We had to raise funds to buy grocery store gift cards, because otherwise families did not have food,” Berney said.
Though it is not a requirement, Berney said Jewish Social Services places importance on providing refugees with internet access. “We make sure that every family has at least one, if not two, cell phones with a data plan and internet in their apartments so they can be connected with their family back home,” said Berney.
Though she rarely meets with refugees directly, Berney recounted an interaction she had with a recently resettled Afghan family. She was setting up the family’s WiFi, which was extremely important to them. They had a little boy with health issues and wanted to update their family back in Afghanistan on his health status.
“Internet is their way to be tied to family back home,” Berney said. “If they have internet they can use WhatsApp, and that is huge for families, because this all happened so fast that people didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”