Afghan evacuees search for items at the clothing donation center on Fort McCoy as part of Operation Allies Welcome. Clothing donations have come from all around the Midwest to help Afghan evacuees, as many arrived at Fort McCoy with only one set of clothing. Spc. Rhianna Ballenger
Fort McCoy, Wis. — Democratic congresswomen Gwen Moore of Milwaukee and Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis met Saturday with Afghan women currently housed at Fort McCoy in a bid to learn more about conditions inside the camp.
The representatives toured the base alongside members of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, who had asked for the meeting after hearing concerns.
Moore and Omar said that during their tour, they saw children playing inside the base and families eating lunch and going about life in the neighborhoods within the base.
“We were very, very happy when we saw the children running around giving us high-fives and fist bumps,” Moore said. “That’s how we knew everything was OK.”
The representatives spoke with a group of women who were able to ask questions and give suggestions on improvements. One of the issues raised was the need for trauma-based care.
“It’s something that I’ve worked on as a refugee,” said Omar, who fled Somalia when she was 8 years old. “And so not only are we going to find a way for our new neighbors to have the ability to have their trauma addressed, but I think we might even explore legislative ways to address that for future refugees.”
U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, far left, and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, speak outside Fort McCoy on Sept. 25, 2021. Laura Schultz/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Another suggestion was for there to be more cultural competency when it comes to the traditions of the Afghan evacuees, such as providing food that aligns with their beliefs.
The base, located between Tomah and Sparta, is housing 12,600 Afghan evacuees, the representatives said. They began arriving in August after fleeing Afghanistan when the Taliban retook control of the country.
Most of those housed Fort McCoy are not Special Immigrant Visa applicants who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter. However, they are working through a process to gain asylum in the U.S.
Since arriving at the base, the evacuees have received medical care, including necessary vaccinations such as the COVID-19 shot and the MMR vaccine to combat cases of measles that were seen on the base after their arrival. Only a small number of people have tested positive for COVID-19. They were immediately quarantined, along with people in close contact with them.
The visit to the base comes on the heels of charges being filed against two men who were housed there. Mahommad Haroon Imaad, 32, is accused of striking and choking his wife, and Bahrullah Noori, 20, is charged with three counts of attempting to engage in sexual acts with a minor, and while using force in one case.
Both men appeared in federal court on Thursday, with Imaad pleading not guilty, and Noori refusing to enter a plea. The men are being housed at the Dane County jail.
The charges are a result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Fort McCoy police.
Nine resettlement agencies are now working with evacuees located at Fort McCoy and other military installments across the country to help them find new homes in 150 different communities across the U.S. About 400 evacuees are expected to be resettled in Wisconsin.
Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, said that the conversations with the evacuees inside of Fort McCoy were touching, and that those housed there are grateful for the opportunities they’ve received so far.
“They are eager to be part of the broader society and I think that the sooner that we can make space for them and help them, the sooner that I think we will all be enriched as as a country,” she said.
An Afghan child plays on a makeshift swing created by tying sheets to the posts of newly constructed clothing lines at Fort McCoy. Spc. Rhianna Ballenger
Republicans continue to raise concerns
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson on Thursday again raised concerns about those being housed at military bases across the country in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget.
Johnson, along with four other Republican Senators, questioned legislation that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to adjust the status of Afghan parolees and, on a case-by-case basis, waive portions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That act includes regulations that make certain refugees, asylum seekers and visa applicants ineligible, such as if they are a criminal, human trafficker, drug trafficker or terrorist, the letter says.
“The Biden Administration’s unwillingness to answer basic questions about Afghan parolees and its vetting procedures, especially when coupled with OMB’s request for Congress to waive terrorist, national security, and all other grounds of inadmissibility, raises significant national security concerns about Operation Allies Welcome,” the letter said.
Moore said Johnson’s concerns were unfounded.
“I think that sometimes people amplify problems,” she said. “We’ve heard like, what, two incidences of problems that were dealt with? For the most part, we saw children running around, learning how to fist bump, and people feeling very much at home.”
A White House official said Friday afternoon that thorough screenings were conducted on every evacuee when they arrived in a country outside Afghanistan, and again when they arrived in the U.S. Cases of someone not being able to enter the U.S. have been rare, the official said, which reinforced that the “robust” vetting system works.
“The refugee vetting is probably the most intense of any sort of immigration vetting that we do here in the United States,” Omar said. “I know that there are a lot of people who are fear mongering for political reasons, but these are probably the safest neighbors we can have in our communities.”
A spokesperson for Johnson’s office did not respond to a request for an interview about the letter.
Organizations still seeking donations
Meanwhile, volunteer organizations are still asking Wisconsinites for help clothing evacuees, who weren’t prepared for Wisconsin weather, particularly heading into winter.
John Stuhlmacher, a senior associate for operations with Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization, said those at the base are in need of conservative, new clothing, especially coats. New clothing is easier to process; conservative, loose-fitting clothing is most appropriate for the refugees. Most weren’t allowed to bring anything on the plane with them.
“We had a large amount of evacuees coming into Fort McCoy wearing only the clothing they’ve been wearing since they started their trek to the airport,” he said.
After the clothing is brought to the base, it is distributed with dignity, Stuhlmacher said.
“Instead of just handing things out to individuals, they actually get to come to a storefront that was created and they get to ‘shop’ for the items that they need most,” he said. “They’re not paying for these items, but they can choose what’s most needed for them and their families.”
U.S. Army Pvt. Adam Sandavol, attached to 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, hands a Red Cross care bag to an Afghan evacuee during the reception process at Fort McCoy. Spc. Rhianna Ballenger
Benny Benedict, the emergency disaster services director for the Wisconsin and Upper Michigan division of the Salvation Army, said that those looking to donate can also provide monetary donations, which are sometimes easier to coordinate and don’t require sorting or transport.
“If you give $10, it can be toothpaste, it can be socks, it could be underwear,” Benedict said.
Donations can be made online, but clothing and other hygiene items can also be dropped off at Salvation Army intake centers in Oak Creek, Madison, La Crosse and Wausau.
Stuhlmacher said the outpouring of donations of money and clothing have been outstanding.
“It’s been an overwhelming experience in a positive way. Seeing the community really step up to support these new Americans has really made me feel positive about Wisconsin,” he said.