At Fort McCoy, Team Rubicon set to withdraw; officials say all Afghan refugees now have ‘winter layers’

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Afghan children play at Fort McCoy on Sep 22, 2021. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army, Spc. Rhianna Ballenger)

MADISON, Wis. — As temperatures continue to drop in Wisconsin, Task Force McCoy officials say all Afghan refugees have “winter layers” but about 4% still without winter coats are expected to receive them in the next few days.

About 9,200 Afghan guests, including U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and refugees, remain at Fort McCoy and about 3,300 have left for permanent resettlement, according to the latest estimates provided to News 3 Now on Thursday.

Pregnant women and people with medical concerns are among those being prioritized for resettlement as the winter months draw closer.

“Task Force McCoy is working as quickly as possible to keep the length of stay at Fort McCoy as short as possible,” a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said in an email. “This may take weeks or longer depending on the steps required to help them resettle elsewhere in the United States.”

Winter preparations for Afghan refugees also includes installing warming tents at dining and other critical facilities, more indoor activities introduced, quality checks for utilities and snow clearing plans. Other preparations include planning for transportation to minimize foot traffic, as well as planning for power or heating outages in living areas.

There aren’t clear timelines still for how long some will stay on the base, where the majority continue to be humanitarian parolees. Timelines vary depending on when refugees arrived and how much time they need for mandatory vaccinations and other medical issues, as well as time spent to finish necessary paperwork like work authorizations.

RELATED: An affordable housing crisis: Afghan refugees in Madison

“Travel availability to their final destination and the absorptive capacity of our resettlement agency partners and local communities may also affect the amount of time people will spend on the base,” the spokesperson said.

81 days of donations

Team Rubicon, which has been working as the liaison for donations between the federal government and both private and corporate donors, is set to formally withdraw from Fort McCoy on Friday while handing over donation management to another organization, Save Our Allies.

In the 81 days that they’ve managed donations for Task Force McCoy, they’ve sorted and turned over about 969,000 items at a valuation of more than $6.2 million, according to senior operations associate John Stuhlmacher.

“That was done through donations, the kindness of the hearts of Wisconsinites just giving what they could, corporations like Kohls and Lands End stepping up to help fill some of those gaps,” he explained.

“Most of these individuals who came to Fort McCoy left after the terrorist attack at the airport, and they were not allowed to bring anything with them other than the clothes on their back. And that’s why these numbers are so high.”

The final tally includes new clothes as well as some gently-used and newly-made culturally-appropriate clothing, he said. That came with the help of the Islamic Societies in Milwaukee and Madison, as well as a donation drive in Minneapolis.

“We had a huge outpouring from the immigrant community that was able to provide used culturally-relevant clothing,” Stuhlmacher said. “A lot of things that those individuals brought with them when they immigrated here, or have made since.”

The hundreds of thousands of clothing items mentioned doesn’t include those that were sorted out for wrong sizes or cultural inappropriateness, which were donated to other local organizations.

RELATED: Comfort after chaos: Veteran-led Team Rubicon helping Afghan refugees settle into new life

Founded by former University of Wisconsin football player and Marine veteran Jake Wood, Team Rubicon is a national volunteer and veteran-led organization formed to respond to disasters and other events.

While the team is withdrawing from donation management at Fort McCoy, their efforts to help refugees continue elsewhere–including permanent resettlement help in Denver where they’ve helped more than 100 Afghan refugees furnish their new homes and apartments.

They hope to expand efforts like those into other states in the months to come, Stuhlmacher said.

Madison businesses prepare to welcome refugees

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce hosted an official from the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday to discuss how businesses could contribute to permanent resettlement efforts for refugees.

RELATED: ‘Not something that happens easily’: Interpreter shortage, benefit delays among challenges for Afghan refugees in Wisconsin

Those efforts could look like sponsorships under newly-launched Sponsor Circle Program, which allows private individuals or groups to host resettlement efforts in a way similar to services local resettlement agencies are providing.

Other possible efforts include participating in career trainings as well as business and cultural demonstrations.

“[We’ve] starting to think about how you could connect to them as a community and hopefully have them embrace our community,” Zach Brandon with the GMCOC said. “Even if it’s not clear exactly what the future pathway will be to the workforce, we should all start thinking about, ‘How do we create and welcome the allies and Afghans that our living at Fort McCoy into the Madison community?'”

Those efforts shouldn’t be to fill a workforce gap, he said.

“It’s more than just making a career here. We’d want them to know that Madison is the best place to live in America.”