UCC members part of warm welcome for refugees in Eau Claire

Members of First Congregational UCC in Eau Claire were among the first people to welcome an initial group of eight Afghan refugees to their new home in the Chippewa Valley last month.

“Everything is going really, really well. They’re just a really wonderful group of men,” said Ginny Close, a First Congregational member and a leader of Welcoming New Neighbors-NW WI Refugee Resettlement, an interfaith alliance formed to support the Afghans.

It’s not clear when the men’s wives and children will arrive in the United States. The Afghans had been temporarily housed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey since fleeing their homeland after the U.S. military pullout and subsequent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August.

The Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire reported that 70 volunteers from Welcoming New Neighbors have been working to help the Afghans obtain housing, food, furniture, clothing and other supplies.

Members of the group also made sure to provide a culturally-sensitive welcome. Each man received a red rose upon arrival at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport.

“One of our volunteers had researched how people in Afghanistan are welcomed at airports, so he and I stopped and picked up red roses,” Close said. “A volunteer group cooked authentic food for the first three nights.”

Volunteers already have connected the refugees with the local Muslim community, which gave the men prayer rugs and has helped transport then to Friday services.

The most pressing challenge is finding housing for the men, who were spending their first days in Eau Claire in a hotel. “Housing is really difficult,” Close said. “We’re looking for housing that the men will be able to afford on their own once they get jobs.”

Fortunately, decent-paying jobs are plentiful, she said. Welcoming New Neighbors has identified jobs paying $20 to $23 an hour that come with benefits. Most of the jobs require minimal English or none at all.

The refugees are friendly and polite, Close said.

“You want to adopt them all,” she said. “The temptation is to do more than we are supposed to.” Training provided by Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, the federally approved resettlement agency working with the Eau Claire group, “continues to preach that we are teachers,” she said. “The goal is for folks to become as independent and self-sufficient as they can as quickly as they can.”

The Wisconsin Foundation UCC has created a fund to support the efforts of Wisconsin Conference congregations and partners engaged in resettlement efforts. You can donate online or send a check to Wisconsin Conference UCC, 4459 Gray Road, DeForest, WI 53532. Write “Afghan refugees” in the memo line. The fund will administered by Mary Kuenning Gross, coordinator of the Wisconsin Conference Afghan allies welcoming initiative.

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