On the highway between Fort McCoy – where thousands of Afghan refugees have been living temporarily since last month – and the city of Sparta, a hand-painted blue and white sign reads “Fuhrer Biden” except that the “i” in Biden is a swastika.
The two neighboring US Army base communities, Sparta and Tomah, voted 52% and 57% for Donald Trump in 2020. Monroe County as a whole voted 61% for Trump. Only 41% of the county is fully immunized and none of the cities have exceeded 50% immunization, according to state health records.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers across the country and Wisconsin fear that Afghan refugees – most of whom were American allies during the 20-year war in the country – are dangerous.
A congressman from Montana said on Twitter last week that he was “strongly opposed” to the relocation of 75 Afghans to his state. After visiting the base last month, Senator Ron Johnson expressed concern about the process used to screen Afghans before they arrived in Wisconsin.
Yet despite the political and historical forces swirling around the grassroots and political leanings in the region, when an expected new population of over 13,000 settled nearby between the two towns of around 9,000, the answer was – mainly – what could the residents do to help.
“I think there are a lot of questions and not a lot of answers at the moment,” says John Stuhlmacher, who heads the operations of Team Rubicon, the organization responsible for coordinating the distribution of donations. on the base. “It’s normal for people to ask questions. A new community has just appeared between two communities larger than those before. What we’ve seen is support and they want to start right.
Community members say there has been negative comments on social media, but most people have rushed to donate what they can and volunteer to welcome their new neighbors to the area.
“I’m not going to say that there haven’t been negative responses from people,” says Dawn Lindberg, pastor at the Lutheran Peace Church in Tomah. “There are those who wonder why we would help them. As my role as a pastor, one of my roles is to remind people that we are called to love and serve others. We love and serve our God and we love and serve others. And it doesn’t matter who these others are – they’re our neighbors down the street, but they’re also our neighbors across the world – that’s what we try to do the best we can is take care of them and to serve them. ”
Lindberg church members donated household items to support the Afghans when some of them were finally relocated near Milwaukee. A meeting room in the church is full of boxes and bags full of pots and pans, cleaning supplies, and other necessities.
Fort McCoy has a long history of hosting refugees, and Lindberg says she hopes people in surrounding communities see this as a positive reflection on where they live – without giving in to fear of the unknown.
“We have taken in refugees in the past,” she says. “For some people who paint a negative picture, others see it as a positive thing. So I think in Tomah there is a struggle. And yet, how do you keep moving forward while taking care of others? And how do we share this message over and over again and remind people that they are people too, just like us? And they want safety, comfort and care just like us?
“I don’t think there are easy solutions, but I think the more we can share our own experiences, positive experiences, I hope the more we can remove the barriers that prevent us from taking care of others,” adds Lindberg. “Hatred, violence, the things that are so easy to hold onto and yet I don’t think that’s what we’re called to. Yeah, so there’s work to be done, no doubt about it and educate and learn more and grow. But I hope, I hope that we are going in that direction.
Since the arrival of the Afghans last month, Judy Donaldson has hardly stopped moving. She helped start a Facebook group to coordinate donations and community response, she has worked to educate her most skeptical neighbors – constantly reminding herself that she lives in an “incredibly generous” community.
Last Tuesday Donaldson wavered between excitement and frustration.
That morning, the television channel La Crosse News8000 reported that Afghans had been forced to queue for hours for leftover food while others were hungry. Later, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that many people now living on the base did not have a change of clothes and were forced to wear the same underwear that they had left Afghanistan day after day.
A spokesman for Fort McCoy said the lack of food was due to “supply chain issues” which have now been resolved. U.S. Representatives Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) Have requested an investigation on the “possible mistreatment and / or neglect” of Afghan refugees at the base.
Stuhlmacher says it’s been a challenge coordinating all the donations that come in and getting what’s needed on the base, but the generosity of the community and Wisconsin as a whole has been amazing.
“It’s a lot at once,” he says. “To collect all the belongings, mainly what we handle is the clothes, they can only evacuate in the clothes they are wearing. [They need] several sets of new and clean clothes so that they can change clothes and maintain their dignity, it is a logistics lift to obtain several sets of clothes for 12,000 people. You need three t-shirts for everyone, so 36,000 shirts, 36,000 pairs of underwear. Bring it in, sort it, make sure it’s culturally appropriate, and have it distributed. Working with the Department of Defense, State Department, State of Wisconsin, County of Monroe is really a total community response to be able to handle this. ”
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But Donaldson, who traveled to Afghanistan in 2003 to work with a humanitarian organization, also had just learned that volunteers would be allowed into the base to help set up women’s sewing centers and rooms. of games for children. After weeks of itching to get on the base, she was finally going to be able to go directly to help the people who had just moved in next.
“These are people who have helped us. These are people who have been persecuted. These are the people we need to help, ”she said. “At first I was like ‘Oh my God’, they come here between Sparta and Tomah, they go to a rural county, really? But then I kind of tapped into my own self and remembered how incredibly generous this community is. “
Community members say Fort McCoy’s status as a place that can accommodate so many people when they need help is special to them, and they need to make sure neighboring towns do their best.
“It’s a unique honor to see Fort McCoy as a place that can truly handle a humanitarian crisis and welcome people,” said Lindberg. “And of the people who are on base that I spoke with, they were just impressed with the way it was handled. And there are definitely hiccups, of course you can’t bring 13,000 people – we don’t have 13,000 people in our town – without there being hiccups, but I really think it was okay. managed. And I think we’re still Tomah and Sparta. And I hope that will give us the opportunity to be the best that we are.
Donations new clothing can be made at Salvation Army locations across Wisconsin.