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

MADISON, Wis. — Local resettlement agencies have an uphill battle to resettle Afghan refugees in Wisconsin, thanks to downsizing or staffing shortages and combined with a litany of other pressures.

About 35 refugees have so far resettled in Madison, and about 150 have resettled statewide. Originally slated to resettle 399 refugees, Wisconsin’s top refugee coordinator says that number is expected to increase but does not yet know by how much.

The primary challenge, as it is nationwide, is affordable housing — in part because of a state and nationwide shortage, and in part because of economic and cultural factors that make it challenging to find housing for a single-income family that is usually larger than average. But in addition to housing, refugee resettlement in Wisconsin is facing numerous other issues.

RELATED: An affordable housing crisis: Afghan refugees in Madison

“Building a community, and then building a strong community — which is our goal — is not something that happens overnight,” said Bojana Zoric Martinez, Wisconsin’s refugee coordinator and Director of the Bureau of Refugee Programs. “It’s not something that happens easily.”

Shortage of interpreter services

Wisconsin’s Afghan population is fairly small: 313 refugees from Afghanistan resettled in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2019. More than a third settled in Dane County; most of those refugees have been in the last few years.

“We don’t have such large Afghan population that some of the other states may have, and therefore not much to pull from to help with interpretation and translation as it is,” Zoric Martinez explained. “There isn’t enough resources to satisfy the demand.”

Organizations that provide interpretation services in Madison say they’ve started receiving requests for Dari and Pashto services (the official languages of Afghanistan) but have been unsuccessful so far in finding someone who can provide that type of interpretation.

“We’ve spent weeks trying to track down interpreters of Afghan languages, and had no luck,” a spokesperson with the Interpreter’s Coop of Madison told News 3 Now. “It’s frustrating to us because we know there’s a need, and clients have begun to ask about Pashto and Dari.”

Delays in social security cards, accessing benefits

It used to be that a refugee in Madison could get a same-day appointment and leave with a social security card, Dawn Berney said. Now, that process could take anywhere from three to six weeks.

Part of it is the delays and virtual meetings introduced to stem the spread of COVID-19, but that delay is leaving many refugees in limbo as they wait on the card to access benefits like food stamps.

“That’s a huge problem for families who have absolutely no income, and you can’t possibly rely on a food pantry to get all of your food,” Berney explained. “They’re stuck until they get the social security card, which historically they would get the day after they arrived in Madison.”

Gift cards for affordable grocery stores like Woodman’s help fill the gap, she said. Cash donations are another way to help cover their bare necessities while they wait for basic benefits. (You can donate to Jewish Social Services here, or Open Doors for Refugees — a volunteer organization that partners with JSS — here. Open Doors is also collecting gift cards for refugees.)

The state is working to help minimize the effects of delays in accessing benefits. Caseworkers at military bases start the initial application for both employment authorization and social security cards while refugees are still at the base, Zoric Martinez said, and applications are handled by the International Organization for Migration. The final documents are sent to local resettlement agencies, of which there are six in Wisconsin, who connect them to refugees as they arrive.

“The process of course will take some time. We know that some people have already received their employment authorization cards, and some people have not,” Zoric Martinez said. “So that’s part of it.”

The delays also come off a year of the pandemic where social security regional offices have been closed and only accepting urgent appointments, she noted. The state is working to overcome those challenges and maintains good relationships with the state’s regional offices to do that.

Education, medical care, other challenges

Challenges don’t end with housing, language, or benefits, however. The state’s head of refugee programs also points to appropriate medical care, medical screening and education for children as other battles resettlement agencies must face.

All of this is happening after four years under the Trump administration when local resettlement agencies downsized and, currently, many are facing staffing shortages of their own.

“In the last four or five years, refugee resettlement programs have really downsized because of the less-than-favorable refugee and immigration policy that’s been coming our way,” Zoric Martinez said. “We don’t have enough capacity or a lot of capacity to deal with the increase in population that we’re looking at right now. So while we’re starting to rebuild at capacity, we don’t have as much manpower to deal with some of the things that we need to.”

At Jewish Social Services in Madison, about 16 staff members are working but the agency says it’s trying to hire for at least five more positions. That’s the story across the state, Zoric Martinez said.

“That is nothing that we have not dealt with in the past and nothing that we haven’t overcome together as service providers of the refugee programs,” she noted. She herself started her life in Wisconsin as a refugee from Bosnia, known then as Yugoslavia, when she was 18 years old — speaking no English and learning to navigate the system. Now, she helps others do the same and is confident in the state’s ability to help refugees get on their feet.

“Refugees do tend to become self-sufficient very quickly, so it’s really important for us to contribute to their success.”