Milwaukee-area congregations have started sponsoring and welcoming refugees from Afghanistan. They are helping them acclimate to southeast Wisconsin.
Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee and Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills each established “welcome circles” to help resettle the refugees. The U.S. State Department is allowing private community groups to gain certification to help resettle families that were displaced after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last year.
Working with local organizations for guidance, the synagogues are helping the refugees establish housing and access resources. A family that CEEBJ sponsored arrived in mid-February, and a family Shir Hadash is sponsoring is expected in the coming weeks.
The family CEEBJ is helping includes a mother, a father and two young boys, with another baby on the way, said Reenie Kavalar. A vice president on the synagogue’s board and one of the congregants playing a lead role in the sponsorship, Kavalar said the placement came shortly after CEEBJ signed up as a welcome circle.
The synagogue started talking about the possibility in October, she said, but it didn’t move ahead at that time. CEEBJ submitted its application to sponsor a family at the end of January, she said. Soon after, a family was assigned.
With the quick timeline, Kavalar said housing arrangements were not yet in place. The family initially moved into the apartment prepared by Shir Hadash for the family it expects to host. Kavalar said the refugees would move into the apartment CEEBJ is preparing at the end of February.
Now, the synagogue’s welcome circle is helping the family access services so they can establish themselves in Milwaukee and the U.S.
“We will be taking them for health assessments. We will be getting them signed up on Medicaid, on FoodShare and whatever other public assistance is available to refugees that have no income at the moment,” Kavalar said.
In addition, she said the congregation would help the family find work and access classes to learn English.
During their first week in the city, Kavalar said members of CEEBJ’s circle visited with the family every day. Although the synagogue’s obligations as an official sponsor technically are time-limited, Kavalar said the congregation hopes to establish a long-term relationship.
“We want them to be settled. We want them to have friends. We want them to integrate into the society that we have here,” she said. “Part of that is making and maintaining those relationships.”
The local congregations are working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, as well as with Hanan Refugee Relief Group, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that helps refugees transition into their host communities.
In addition, the circles also are learning how to support their families through the mentorship of Kai Gardner Mishlove, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. In a previous role, Gardner Mishlove worked in refugee advocacy and is drawing on that experience to help the circles navigate the resettlement process.
Gardner Mishlove said the circles are replicating the work typically conducted by established resettlement agencies, such as the International Institute of Wisconsin and Lutheran Social Services. Those local agencies and their peers across the nation do not alone have the capacity to serve all the Afghan refugees, she said.
As a result, she said the circles that sign up to sponsor families are assuming a range of responsibilities. Under the State Department’s circle program, sponsors agree to provide support during refugees’ first 90 days in their host community.
“You’re welcome, of course, to continue,” Gardner Mishlove said. “You have to continue, really, because it’s impossible for a family to be totally acclimated in 90 days.”
Milwaukee-area congregations’ involvement in the resettlement process takes a range of forms, Gardner Mishlove said. In addition to CEEBJ and Shir Hadash establishing welcome circles, she said Congregation Sinai in Fox Point is working with Hanan to provide support to families the organization is assisting. Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale donated to the International Institute of Wisconsin.
Unlike formal resettlement agencies, she said, the sponsor circles do not receive funding and have to provide their own financial support for the refugees. Through the welcome circle program arranged by HIAS, sponsors are expected to raise at least $2,275 for each individual they welcome.
Community members who want to support the resettlement work could consider donating money, Gardner Mishlove said. Those funds would help pay for costs such as rent payments, utilities and cell phones. As of mid-February, a community fund was expected to be established to collect donations.
Rabbi Michal Woll of Shir Hadash said financial contributions were a primary need. Shir Hadash had raised about $20,000 for its resettlement work as of a mid-February interview. Woll said the circles also are accepting certain material donations if they’re in excellent condition, such as large rugs. Other furnishings and certain appliances would also be accepted, Woll said.
“They don’t necessarily furnish houses and use them the way we do,” she said. “We really want these folks to have the experience of, to some extent, being able to create a home that they’re comfortable with and want, not just what we provide for them.”
Two individuals have donated cars to help the families. Woll said she anticipated one car would be used by an interpreter who has been assisting the congregations with communication.
Although the synagogues established their own welcome circles, Woll said they are working together and sharing information about the resettlement process so they can help their sponsored families access resources.
Similar to Kavalar, Woll said she hopes to see personal relationships develop with the family Shir Hadash is sponsoring. Overall, she said the goal of the congregation’s work is to help the refugees create a life in Milwaukee.
“Almost everyone in our community has had their family do this within the last few generations,” she said. “We are such new arrivals to this country. Many of the people who actively contributed have done so in the memory of their family for whom someone helped them create a life here.”