Damakant Jayshi

New Beginnings for Refugees is seeking beds and other basic furniture along with greetings teams and sponsor support from the community as more than a dozen new refugees are set to arrive in Wausau.

Since the end of December, 28 Afghans have arrived in Wausau, officials said. Two more families and two other individuals as part of four cases are arriving on Friday. Each separate family or an individual comprises a case.

“The support from the community in welcoming these families has been absolutely incredible,” Margaret Pagoria, program coordinator at New Beginnings for Refugees, told Wausau Pilot & Review in an interview.

New Beginnings is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization that was established in the second half of 2021 to help the Ethiopian Community Development Council, one of nine national agencies working to resettle about 85-100 Afghans in Wausau. Tens of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan have been living in U.S. military bases since they were airlifted from the war-torn country last year. ECDC is working with partner organizations and federal and state agencies to resettle the allotted number by March, though they have until the fiscal year ends in September to do so.

Among the immediate needs for refugees and parolees are new twin beds, mattresses and co-sponsors or ‘greetings’ teams to help support the Afghans in the beginning, Pagoria said.

“We really want people to sign up to be co-sponsors,” said Pagoria, herself a full-time volunteer. “It is a big responsibility and commitment.”

The co-sponsors are part of a 7-member team that assists incoming families for 9 months to a year, an ECDC model. Main responsibilities include keeping a designated household ready for the new family, helping them with groceries and driving them around for core service appointments. So far, two churches in Wausau have come together to form a co-sponsor team.

Realizing that finding a team of co-sponsors from the community in Wausau to commit for about a year could be difficult, New Beginnings, in consultation with ECDC, modified the requirement. They developed the idea of a ‘greetings’ team, which could be an individual or a family, to carry out similar responsibilities for between two and three weeks. Each co-sponsor or greetings team member will undergo background checks before they can support Afghan evacuees, who themselves have also undergone multiple such checks.

“We hope the greetings team will continue beyond 2-3 weeks but that is not a requirement, just a hope,” Pagoria said.

Though many in the Wausau community have volunteered for the role more support and donations are required, a point that was mentioned recently by William Harris, who is on the New Beginnings board.

“We will be welcoming 15 more families on February 1st and I know we can show them what a big-hearted community we are,” Harris said, in a Facebook post early this week. “We are in need of 16 brand new twin bed mattresses for them.”

Those interested in helping arriving families could visit the New Beginnings website or their Facebook page. St. Vincent de Paul is running a 10% off mattress sale Jan. 20-22, added Harris, who is also Marathon County supervisor for Dist. 3.

Refugees are being resettled in Wausau after the U.S. Department of State approved the ECDC’s resettlement plan in September. The first of the families arrived in Wausau last month. ECDC is partnering with New Beginnings for the resettlement in Wausau.

Pastor Rebecca Voss of First United Methodist Church in Wausau is among those who helped set up New Beginnings. She was also instrumental in Wausau being chosen for resettlement over Madison, with support from Mayor Katie Rosenberg.

“It is undoubtedly a challenge to receive so many new families at once, but the reward of knowing they’re finally safe is worth it,” Voss told Wausau Pilot & Review. “I’ve been privileged to hear countless examples of the risks they took to support our troops, build a democracy in Afghanistan, and work for peace and justice wherever they go. They not only want to become self-sufficient but to contribute to the good of our city and state.”

Voss said the people coming to the city from Afghanistan are both intelligent and compassionate. “Many are well-educated, articulate, and have worked in leadership positions in business, government, infrastructure development, and safety/security,” she said. “I’m amazed at how quickly they are already seeking ways to get involved in rebuilding not just their lives, but helping our whole community.”

When asked if the New Beginnings was worried about negative pushback on resettling Afghans in the community, Pagoria said they are so busy in their volunteer work that there is “no time to get into the weeds.”

She expressed hope that people who have questions or are worried about the resettlement to learn more about their new community members.

“We really encourage them to read their stories,” Pagoria said. “They are so powerful. They have worked so hard for the U.S. government. Some of them saw their family being killed just for helping the United States.”

Pagoria added that the resettlement is an inter-agency effort comprising law enforcement agencies, area school districts and members of the business community and faith community.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.