Less than two months ago, an Afghan family of seven was living at an American military base on Abu Dhabi after they fled their nation when it fell to the Taliban.
But thanks to the “welcome circle” made up of volunteers at Congregation Shir Hadash, which was established to help resettle Afghan refugees, the husband and wife and their five children are now in Milwaukee, where they are quickly establishing their lives here in America.
“All of us are so happy to have something to say yes to and something positive to do,” Rabbi Michal Woll of Congregation Shir Hadash said. “We are a people for whom our whole history is about trauma and relocation so there is something about being able to be on the other side of welcoming and assisting and befriending folks who are going through something similar.”
Currently, Congregation Shir Hadash’s welcome circle is searching for new housing for the family, made up of two adult sons, two high school girls and a middle school boy since their current apartment has only one bathroom.
“When we planned for housing, we assumed that at least three of them would be under the age of five, which is mostly what we are seeing,” Woll said. “We are seeing young families with young kids. Our apartment is not big enough for all of these adults.”
The welcome circle is also helping the family sign up for government benefits such as health insurance and food assistance and setting up English classes for the three female family members, who have much less English than the males.
“We are helping the two college-aged men think about whether they want to go to school or go to work,” Woll said, noting how much the two men are anxious to work. “We have these two young men going on Indeed, looking for jobs. We’ve had to work really hard to slow these young men down to explain what their options are and how this works.”
The welcome circle and circles like it are much more personable than the governmental bureaucracy, which can result in unique social challenges with the refugee families.
“We are trying to make them realize that this is no different than being settled by the government and that we are not giving them our money and they don’t owe us anything,” Woll said.
The resettlement effort for the newest Afghan family is much different than the one Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun embarked on with a refugee family of four in February, 2022, Woll said.
After four months, that family is making progress. The mother is now pregnant and is due in July, the father is working, and the two boys are enrolled in school, said Reenie Kavalar, a vice president on the synagogue’s board who has played a major role in the circle and their resettlement.
“They still have some difficulty understanding our financial system and how it works. In Afghanistan, you pay everything in cash,” Kavalar said.
In addition to housing and financial assistance, the circle provided both parents with phones and found dental care for the mother, who arrived with a severe tooth ache, Kavalar said.
“Most of us who are part of the circle, have parents or grandparents who were immigrants. For us, it is paying it back and paying it forward,” she said.
The circles at the two local congregations are working with the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, now just called HIAS, as well as with Hanan Refugee Relief Group, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that helps refugees transition into their host communities.
Another similar effort has unfolded at Congregation Sinai, where member Mary Wurzburg started a chavurah at the synagogue. Wurzburg’s chavurah is assisting two female journalists, who were forced to flee Afghanistan, in their adjustment to the Milwaukee area.
They have recently moved to a new apartment on the East Side, to be among other young working professionals. But while both are currently working at warehouses, employment has been a challenge for them.
“One of the women is on her second job and the other is on her third job,” Wurzburg said. “There have been challenges with transportation and the woman who is working her third job is working third shift, which she has never done.”
Another challenge is that the women feel beholden to send money home to their families, Wurzburg said.
“They are lovely, lovely women. This has been a learning curve, but very rewarding,” she said. “The change between February and now is incredible. They are much happier. They call us their moms.”