Social Services agencies prepare to house Afghan refugees

NOW: Social Services agencies prepare to house Afghan refugees

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Social services agencies in Wisconsin are preparing to welcome an unknown number of Afghan refugees after federal officials announced some will relocate to Fort McCoy, a military base west of Tomah.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed to CNN that the Department of Defense will potentially relocate up to 30,000 Afghan refugees in the U.S. Kirby says that Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin have the capability to house these applicants.

This is not the first time Fort McCoy has housed refugees. It housed thousands of Cuban refugees in 1980.

"At this point we're looking to establish 20 to 22-thousand spaces, we can expand if we need to," said Kirby.

The announcement now has Jewish Social Services of Madison preparing for the arrival of refugees, but they've been told they'll have little notice of when and how many will need their services.

"As we prepare for new arrivals, we are beginning to make connections with extend stay hotels because we're not going to find an apartment within 24 hour notice," said Dawn Berney, executive director of Jewish Social Services.

Typically, social services agencies are given two weeks to four months' notice of a refugee transfer, but since the situation is fluid, Berney said, they are preparing as much as they can now.

"Making sure we have enough furniture, supplies for apartments and fundraising since we usually try to provide four months of rent and a security deposit," she said.

The situation comes as chaos erupted in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over nearly the entire area over the weekend, leaving thousands of Afghans desperate to flee the area.

Berney said the video coming out of Afghanistan is heartbreaking.

"It's horrifying, and I want to be able to do and to have our agency do as much as we possibly can for as many people as we possibly can."

The video can be especially painful for US veterans.

"You do grow bonds with a lot of these people, I think of lot of veterans are grieving their part of the war, but they're also worried about the refugees who are stuck in country," said Aurora Health Care Veterans Retraining Program Medical Director Dr. Gregory Burek.

Berney expects refugees to arrive within a week or two and said "it sounds like they are going to Virginia or California, then Wisconsin, but things remain up in the air."

Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin also is "ready and eager" to provide support and services to refugees. President and CEO Hector Colon said, "When called upon, the LSS Refugee Resettlement team secures apartments, coordinates transportation, and guides them through applications for benefits, health care, school enrollment and more."

UW-Madison Professor of Communication Arts Sara McKinnon, who has expertise in refugee transfers, said the biggest difference about this situation compared to others is that thousands will be leaving in a dramatic fashion, and very quickly.

"It's a crisis situation and in the West we often don't think about this moment of having to leave your home really dramatically," said McKinnon. "It's hard to put oneself in the shoes of the individuals who didn't expect to leave abruptly."

The U.S. State Department did not respond to our questions Monday, but it's authorized to issue up to 26,5000 visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. Nearly 11,000 of those applications remain as of April. Burek said helping them may ease veterans' pain as they look for answers again.

"These events are also triggering for many of our Vietnam vets too, they went through a very similar end of the war and questioning whether their service mattered," said Burek.

Flights from Afghanistan to Wisconsin have not yet begun.

A Defense Department spokesperson said plans are still be sent through the chain of command.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind issued the following statement: 

"Today, I'm thinking of all those who served in Afghanistan in our armed forces and as civilians. We're forever grateful for their dedication and patriotism. At this time I'm also deeply concerned for the safety of our Afghan partners, who served alongside our troops and put their lives on the line to support our mission. We cannot abandon them now - every effort must be made to ensure their safety. As we wait for further details regarding this ongoing situation, I have full confidence in our outstanding service members at Fort McCoy and stand ready to work with local, state, and federal leaders to assist however possible."
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