Bob Herscher, a parishioner of St. John’s Church in Birchwood, accompanies his long-time friend JulieAnne Johnson, a member at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Rice Lake. The two stand before dozens of pictures made by Afghan refugee children housed with their families at Fort McCoy, east of La Crosse. (Submitted photo)
Catholic Herald Staff
Who knew Froot Loops and string could be the makings of a “forever memory?”
When JulieAnne Johnson’s sister sent her the link to donate items for the Afghan refugee families at Fort McCoy, she simply wanted to help in some small way. Prompted by a link announcing the need for volunteers, Johnson realized her gift was going to be a bit bigger.
Little did she know how much more she would be receiving in return.
Wanting to share the experience with someone, Johnson’s mother suggested family friend and “godfather-of-sorts” Bob Herscher.
Johnson, who lives with her family in Cumberland, spent the 2020-21 school year as a college freshman. Now working before she enters a certified medical assistant program, she reached out to Herscher, who she’d gotten to know during Extreme Faith Camps as a middle school student.
Herscher, of Birchwood, was very interested. Able to take time off from his part-time guidance counselor position with Birchwood School, he also applied to volunteer.
For Director of Marketing for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse Karen Becker, the unfolding of efforts to welcome the refugees has been “a pretty amazing thing to witness.”
Becker explained how their agency mobilized a response within days when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in conjunction with Gov. Tony Evers, requested assistance with organization for the Fort McCoy site east of La Crosse. The Department of Homeland Security reached out to the USCCB, given their extensive work with migrants and refugees.
While just one of several organizations to be involved with the government’s response to the Afghan refugee crisis, Becker said Catholic Charities “jumped in with both feet” from day one.
The large vacant facility in Monroe County between Sparta and Tomah was an obvious choice.
Initially, the request to the local Catholic Charities was for assistance with mounting and manning one women’s and children’s center and one legal center to serve the arriving Afghan refugees.
After a “very hectic first few weeks,” Becker said that the number of Afghans at Fort McCoy had jumped from 500 to more than 12,000.
“It was literally like trying to set up a small town,” she stated.
Efforts and services needed to be augmented. Starting with the two initial centers, Becker currently assists with efforts to find volunteers and stock supplies needed for three women’s and children’s centers, two legal centers, two sewing centers, one learning center and six recreational centers.
Becker said their efforts have been “very blessed” with funds donated from each bishop and diocese within the state.
“Right away, I put something on social media and donations poured in,” she added – both monetary gifts and purchasing items from gift registries she has maintained based on needs and requests.
“Part of our Catholic social teaching is welcoming the sojourner,” Becker said.
A former member of the military is now on staff with Catholic Charities to help process the volunteers that are needed – between 40 and 80 per day. There is the standard safe environment policies as well as paperwork to obtain on-base passes for the volunteers who are coming from within Wisconsin and neighboring states. This staff member has also been responsible for helping to find housing for volunteers during their stay in the area, which can range from one to two weeks.
Johnson and Herscher were housed at nearby Jellystone Park with other volunteers processed through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay. The application and verification process were relatively simple and they recognized the efforts of their cluster staff to provide needed information. In fact, Herscher hopes to return with his wife Linda to volunteer for another week in early 2022.
During their six-day stay, the two were primarily assigned to working in the children’s centers. As a male, Herscher was not allowed into the women’s center.
Johnson spent an afternoon in that building and shared her understanding of the center’s purpose, “To provide a place of peace for the women to come.” During her time there, the women were served tea and offered impromptu lessons on topics they were interested in as well as yoga, which she said the women loved.
There was learning about legal rights, the American money system, geography of the United States, an introduction to local culture and typical elements of American life.
Becker expounded on the primary function of these centers: “To offer hospitality and something for the kids and the women to do to help them find a sense of community. To help them after the trauma that they have all experienced. To find some normalcy, some compassion. To learn about customs in our country, find acceptance, but also just to get together themselves.”
She explained how the refugees, coming from various parts of Afghanistan, arrived as strangers even to each other.
While some specified services are offered to the adults, staff and volunteers involved are also trying to be available for what needs present themselves. The Afghan families are being connected with medical and mental health resources on base.
The men, as heads of households, spend time at the legal centers working through paperwork and meeting with immigration attorneys as needed. In the afternoons they spend time with the older boys leading soccer leagues and martial arts practices. Skills training is also available as needed for finding employment once they are settled in their new communities around the United States.
For the children, Becker stated, the goal is simple. To provide fun and the safe, healthy environment children deserve. Indoors crafts and games are the daily fare with some movie days. When the weather was still mild, they spent a lot of time outdoors.
The Afghan families are being provided appropriate winter clothing, but the change of season highlighted the increased need for recreation centers. These makeshift facilities provide places for indoor sports and activities like ping pong and foosball.
Becker explained the learning center was a grassroots effort with a lot of local Afghan involvement. Area university students and Afghan teachers wanting to help in some way stepped up as interpreters and leaders. There has been coordination with groups of local students to share activities like science experiments with school-age children on base.
In addition, those providing resources for the on-site learning center have coordinated with up to eight other learning centers in the wider La Crosse area to share and provide materials.
To summarize, Becker said, “Anything that you can imagine in a small city is probably also going on base.”
Johnson described her experience of the centers – both for the women and children – as places of rest and gathering.
She noted that the Afghan national anthem was sung daily, “loud and proud.”
“It’s good for them to have that to hold on to,” Johnson said. “They love where they come from, but they’re also quite grateful to have somewhere safe to be right now. We don’t want them to feel like strangers or that they have to change to be here.”
Herscher echoed Johnson’s observations.
“The kids love Afghanistan, but they know it’s not safe there. So they’re embracing being in America. They’re happy to be here.”
He commented how these refugees are not much different from other immigrant populations that have been received by the United States. They are being encouraged to hold on to their own history and customs while also being open to learning about the new country they are being resettled in.
One of the people working directly with resettlement efforts is Kellie Dekarske, a community engagement specialist with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.
Dekarske offered her understanding of the Afghan refugees’ temporary legal status. It is called parole status and has been given, as they did not seek entry to the United States, having been brought here by the American government as a humanitarian response to a crisis situation.
She noted the reality that many did not have a choice in their leaving their home country.
“Families were definitely separated,” she regretted, explaining how a husband and father or single man might have been offered the refugee status because of their job or other situation, but that their families had to stay behind.
“The choice was between something bad or something worse.”
Clear about the “sad cases of families ripped apart,” Dekarske reflected that she cannot imagine how difficult it would be to make a decision between personally being hurt or killed and leaving their family orphaned, or being separated but hoping to keep their loved ones out of harm’s way.
“It will be a long process,” she acknowledged, but said the goal would be that they apply for green cards with the hope of reuniting with their families.
Even given these hardships and the traumatic violence many of the refugees have lived through, both Johnson and Herscher were edified by the Afghans’ generosity, gratitude and joy.
Herscher said the kids, with their “beautiful dark eyes,” were always waving and smiling at the volunteers. He confessed just how taken he was by these children, how much he enjoyed teaching them how to do puzzles – something they had never seen before – starting with the border and then filling it in.
Afghan teens and young adults were some of those who served as translators. Their stories amazed the Northwoods natives. One example was the experience a group of college-aged women. They shared how, packed into a bus to triple the capacity, they spent more than 30 hours circling the Kabul airport to reach safe exit. The driver didn’t dare stop moving the vehicle in case they weren’t allowed to continue.
Johnson said that often words were not needed to communicate with the children.
“Kids want to be kids. They want to run around, to have fun and play.”
Herscher illustrated their love of soccer – or football as they call it – and their adept skills. He recounted that a 6-year-old showed him how to be a better goalie simply by squatting and spreading his arms until Herscher imitated him.
Hard pressed to find the right words, he summarized his experience, saying, “It put a face to all the refugee crises around the world. It’s not just something in the news. It’s those little boys and girls with those beautiful eyes and those beautiful smiles. … It made it personal to me.”
Johnson reiterated similar observations. “It definitely makes the ‘refugee’ something more real.”
One of the things she found most impressive was their generosity.
“They give and they give,” she said.
With notable emotion, Johnson recalled her first time entering the children’s center. Only moments passed before an Afghan child excitedly approached her and put a bracelet on her wrist, followed by a hug and smile.
“I have so, so many bracelets,” Johnson shared and described the beloved Froot Loops strung on yarn.
“Of course, I’ll keep them forever,” she stated with firm conviction, revealing how something so simple could hold so much significance.
“For everything that they’ve had to endure,” Johnson reflected, “leaving literally everything behind, yet they’re joyful” and wanting to give of themselves however they can.
Becker has worked with Catholic Charities for 14 years. She said that watching these families arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back and being able to be a part of helping them rebuild their lives, it is “the most heartfelt personal experience I’ve ever had.”
There was one Afghan man who made a particular impression on her. After hours of being assisted by him as an interpreter, Becker turned to him and realized she didn’t know anything personally about him. She learned he was a husband and father of two young children, the younger a four-month-old baby.
Herself becoming a grandmother just months before, she was struck trying to relate to their situation, imagining her own family members in such a state.
“If they were fleeing their homeland, I would hope there would be somebody where they landed who would welcome them in.”
With continued prodding, he finally admitted he could really use some baby formula and she was more than happy to help.
The end goal is that all these refugee families will be resettled in communities Catholic Charities and others are working with by the end of March.
Dekarske clarified that when a family arrives to Green Bay – where they are resettling dozens of families within a reasonable proximity to help them have their own cultural and and community connections – it is very much a surprise where they are arriving from within the U.S.
“Just because Fort McCoy is in Wisconsin doesn’t mean that that’s who we are getting,” she said.
Commenting on how “very, very hospitable” they are, she said, “They are just very kind people and the majority really do appreciate everything they’re being given.”
“Depending on where they come (rural areas or cities like Kabul), their knowledge of Western life is different,” Dekarske added.
The learning curve is steep – from how to use modern bathroom facilities to understanding American police as helpful and not to be feared.
Dekarske said as Americans, “We just don’t realize what it would be like to live somewhere where you truly have to worry about life and death” on a daily basis.
Describing her own interactions with the Afghan children, Dekarske said the smallest things bring the biggest smiles. She notices how alike they are to any other child – wanting to have fun and naturally being joyful.
“Their little personalities come out across language barriers and you really fall in love with them.”
Attempts are being made to set up play dates with American children to help integrate the Afghan boys and girls in their new communities.
Each and every day, she continues to feel blessed by the work as well as by the outside support and donations – ways that she sees are actually God at work.
“Every time we think we’re going to come up to a roadblock, something will happen and a door will open,” Dekarske said. “There are so many times we’re in need of something … and it just works out. We can only count our blessings – we realize each and every day God is there and he is guiding us. If we give up our challenges to him, he will take care of it.”
Even though the Afghan refugees do not share a common Christian creed, most being Muslim, Dekarske acknowledged the Christian virtues this “truly beautiful people” have taught her.
Dekarske’s concluding comment was to remember that while the Afghan refugees have been in the news, “We want to remember the other people in our community who are also challenged. We should be welcoming to all immigrants, wherever they are from.”
Through the testimony of a volunteer from Milwaukee, Dekarske summed up the charitable work for and with these Afghan refugees, “It’s like doing an international mission trip, but in Wisconsin.”
For the four people whose stories are shared here, their experience repeats what that of every missionary – that what is given pales in comparison with what is received, especially when done in and for love of God and his children, whomever and wherever they are.
For more information, including how to donate and/or volunteer, visit cclse.org/afghan-refugee-assistance for the work in the La Crosse area and catholiccharitiesgb.org/afghan-assistance for the Green Bay resettlement efforts.