'One individual doesn't necessarily reflect on the wider group': Resettlement group responds to arrest of Afghan refugee

WAUSAU - A Wausau man who was widely covered in local media, including the Wausau Daily Herald, because his family was part of a refugee resettlement program was arrested Monday in connection to a sexual assault investigation.

Matiullah Matie, 40, was arrested following a complaint that was made on Feb. 2. A family acquaintance who had been assisting the family with its resettlement made the complaint and said the assault happened in a vehicle, according to a news release from the Wausau Police Department.

Matie is an Afghan businessman who, along with his wife and children, were among the first of about 85 people from Afghanistan resettling in Wausau following the pullout of the American military from the country last summer.

Adam Van Noord, the director of the Wausau Multicultural Community Center, which is leading the refugee resettlement, called the arrest a "worst-case scenario" but emphasized that the center continues to support the population of Afghan refugees who began to arrive in December.

"We want our community to know that we stand by their side in terms of safety, but we don't have any reason to believe there are safety issues as it relates to this population as a whole," Van Noord said. "One individual doesn't necessarily reflect on the wider group."

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who has vocally supported the refugee resettlement effort and visited Matie's home, issued a statement to local media outlets that read, in part, "I was stunned and heartbroken to hear that a woman who was working to assist Wausau’s new refugee arrivals in their resettlement reported that she was sexually assaulted by one of the refugees.

"This alleged crime is absolutely unacceptable," she continued. "My expectations of everyone in our community are that they understand the boundaries and rights of women and men and the legal consequences of violating them.

"This doesn’t define all Afghan refugees any more than other crimes characterize residents from any other background. However, I have talked to Police Chief Bliven, and he and his team stand ready to help with comprehensive and specific training about American legal and social expectations."

Van Noord acknowledged that the incident could create more obstacles for other refugee families.

"Obviously, this is going to be fuel for arguments that exist in our community against refugee resettlement," Van Noord said. But he said that it was important to remember that incidents of sexual assault happen across all populations.

Matie was released on bond Monday. Police are recommending charges of fourth-degree misdemeanor sexual assault, which is sexual contact with a person without the consent of that person under Wisconsin law. Prosecutors had not filed formal charges as of late Monday.

Van Noord said the U.S. had a rigorous screening process in place for all refugees, including Afghans who were evacuated and processed at U.S. military bases. However, he said it was impossible to control or predict the outcome of every case.

Van Noord confirmed that the individual who made the original complaint was not a staff member of the Multicultural Community Center, but said that his staff was reviewing their safety procedures and policies as a result of the incident.

"We unequivocally condemn any act of interpersonal violence and fully support our local law enforcement to handle this case, just as they would any other criminal investigation," he said.

In addition to his profile in the Wausau Daily Herald, Matie was interviewed for local TV stations and had his case profiled in The New York Times.

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That media interest was the reason the Wausau police decided to issue a news release about the arrest before charges were filed, according to Capt. Ben Graham of the Wausau Police Department.

"Generally speaking, a misdemeanor offense like fourth-degree sexual assault would not prompt a media release from our agency, however, given the circumstances, and the anticipated inquiries, we provided information in advance," Graham said.

Renee Hickman is a Report For America corps member based at the Wausau Daily Herald covering rural issues in Wisconsin. Contact at rhickman@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter at @ReneeNHickman. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at WausauDailyHerald.com/RFA.

This article originally appeared on Wausau Daily Herald: Wausau police arrest Afghan refugee accused of sexual assault