COMBINED LOCKS – Days before a family of eight refugees from Afghanistan was set to resettle in the Fox Valley, a group of parishioners with Christ the King Lutheran Church heard the news and sprung into action.
Fourteen members of the church, ranging in ages from 15 to 72, volunteered to be part of the parish's Good Neighbor Team, a program led by World Relief Fox Valley that recruits community members from local churches to help welcome refugees into their new homes.
The team's first meeting was on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 30. At the meeting, World Relief told the volunteers that a family in need of their efforts could arrive any time between a few days to a few months. At that time, Afghan evacuees had been arriving in the Fox Valley for a little over a month.
The church got a call from World Relief the following morning. Their team was assigned to help the family of eight — two parents and six children ages 7 months to 18 years — move into their new home in a matter of days.
"It happened really, really quickly," Christ the King Church pastor Dara Clifford said. "From there, our team got to work."
The family, who had taken very few belongings with them from Afghanistan, was moving into a completely bare house. A list of supplies was shared with the congregation. Within 24 hours, all the essentials were taken care of, with more donations on the way.
"It was the kind of thing that makes you tear up," Sue DeVries, a member of the church's Good Neighbor Team, said. "I'd say more than 75 members of the congregation came forth giving something."
Among the donations from parishioners were household supplies, an oak table with six chairs and a brand new washing machine and dryer. A group from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Appleton heard about the family's needs and donated handmade quilts for every bed in the house and knit hats and mittens for each family member, DeVries said.
By that Thursday night, the Good Neighbor Team had the keys to the home. On Friday morning, they began cleaning. By Monday, the house was furnished and food was cooked, and by Tuesday — exactly a week from the Good Neighbor Team's first meeting — the family had moved in.
World Relief Fox Valley, a local affiliate of national resettlement agency World Relief, leads refugee resettlement efforts in the Appleton and Oshkosh areas. There are nine resettlement agencies in the country, six of which have local affiliates in Wisconsin that are finding new homes for Afghan evacuees in the Fox Valley, Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee and Wausau.
With a staff of 14 people and about 200 Afghan evacuees to resettle, World Relief Fox Valley relies on its Good Neighbor Teams to help refugees with things like furnishing homes, driving to appointments, setting up internet, communicating with neighbors and adjusting to life in an unfamiliar place.
Being a part of a Good Neighbor Team is a monthlong commitment. DeVries said Christ the King Church's team has already developed a close friendship with the family they are working with — despite not speaking the same language. The volunteers and the family, who speak Dari, communicate through a phone app, Microsoft Translator.
"When we signed up for it, we were told to be prepared to commit for at least six months. However, that being said, this family is so grateful and so welcoming, and so doing above and beyond what you could possibly imagine to tell us how much they appreciate it. ... It's hard to imagine that after six months, any of us will think 'Well, that was good. We're done now,'" DeVries said.
DeVries said Christ the King's Good Neighbor Team operates on shared leadership, each member contributing different skills. Some team members focused on cleaning the family's new home; another team member took on the role of helping schedule and keep track of medical appointments; the teenage team member connected with the family's kids.
"We are not people that hang out together, any of us," DeVries said. "We are just separate individual people and couples and families in the congregation that just heard this call and came together."
Beyond helping with day-to-day tasks, Christ the King's Good Neighbor Team is also helping the family connect with the faith community at a local mosque.
In November, World Relief Fox Valley welcomed the first of around 200 Afghan evacuees to Appleton, Oshkosh and the surrounding communities. At that time, Tami McLaughlin, the nonprofit's office director, said the agency did not have a set timeline for resettlement, as much of it depended on the availability of housing. She said she initially expected the program to stretch out for several months, or even a year.
However, during the last two months, there has been an increased sense of urgency from the military to clear people out of the bases housing Afghan evacuees, which are not intended for long-term temporary housing, McLaughlin said.
About half of the Afghan refugees arriving to the Fox Valley are temporarily placed in hotels until more permanent housing is available. For evacuees, it's another step in a long journey that already involved months of living in temporary situations at a "lily pad" site in a third-party country and at a U.S. military base.
"Our newcomers are so anxious to get established. That's the thing we want for them too," McLaughlin said. "They were evacuated out of their country, to a lily pad in Europe for processing, then to a military base in the United States. And now this is their final stop, and they're ready. They're ready to establish their housing, they're ready to get enrolled in school, they're ready to start employment, they just want to start moving forward."
Still, McLaughlin said, the evacuees are being patient. The remaining of the 200 coming to the Fox Valley will be out of their military base and placed in temporary or permanent homes in the community by the first week of February, she said. McLaughlin said the last of the eight military bases housing evacuees is scheduled to clear everyone out by mid-February.
The massive movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees in a matter of months has been historic, but McLaughlin said all necessary security processing is still taking place before evacuees arrive in the United States.
In November 2021, 16,000 Afghans were resettled in the United States, McLaughlin said. In comparison, during the entire fiscal year 2021 — between Oct. 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021 — 11,411 total refugees were resettled in the United States.
World Relief has been supporting refugees from all over the world for decades, but with extensive media coverage on the situation in Afghanistan during the past few months, the organization has seen an outpouring of more support than ever before, McLaughlin said.
"We feel honored that that we're a part of this. We feel like this is a moment in history, this Afghan resettlement and the welcoming of Afghans," she said.
World Relief's Good Neighbor Teams across the Fox Valley are putting forth similar efforts to the team from Christ the King. So far, every Afghan family with children that has arrived in the Fox Valley has been paired with a Good Neighbor Team or individual volunteers, McLaughlin said. There are currently 25 active teams around the area, with two more that have received training and are awaiting arrival of families.
World Relief Fox Valley also trains Friendship Partners, one or two people that pair with a single person or couple arriving from Afghanistan as not part of a larger family, to do some of the same tasks as a Good Neighbor Team on a smaller level.
Being a Friendship Partner or part of a Good Neighbor Team is a big time commitment, McLaughlin said, and the agency invests time in training volunteers. For people looking to help in other ways, the organization also accepts donations for things like supplies to furnish apartments and gift cards for groceries, listed on World Relief Fox Valley's website.
Another way community members can support their new neighbors, McLaughlin said, is by learning about the situation in Afghanistan and why refugees are in need of a new home, as well as getting familiar with Afghan culture.
"We're renting housing all over the community. And so your next door neighbor might be somebody from Afghanistan," McLaughlin said. "It's just a really great way to welcome people, by showing interest and knowing a little bit about them. You never know when you might have an opportunity to befriend somebody. And that's true of all cultures."
After World Relief Fox Valley welcomes the last of the evacuees arriving through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program, the organization will continue to resettle refugees from all over the world through the Reception and Placement Cooperative Agreement. Both programs are run by the U.S. Department of State.
This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Afghan refugees arriving in the Fox Valley are welcomed by volunteers