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Wisconsin military base turns into a small city as Afghans await resettlement

Members of the U.S. military and Afghan refugees play soccer at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. There are nearly 13,000 Afghans at the base.
Members of the U.S. military and Afghan refugees play soccer at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. There are nearly 13,000 Afghans at the base.

Young Afghans who recently fled their homeland joined with American soldiers to play a soccer game on a sunny fall day at the sprawling Fort McCoy military base in Wisconsin. The Afghan team had both boys and several girls — including a goalie who wore a black hijab and blue jeans.

They are among 13,000 Afghan refugees who escaped the Taliban forces in August now find themselves at this Army base, awaiting resettlement in communities across the nation.

Nearby, Afghan women hang laundry on chain link fences. Kids play frisbee or scoot by on bikes. Girls walk past hand in hand. Many grown women look out their window in their barracks.

Brig. Gen. Christopher Norrie heads the task force called Operation Allies Welcome. For Norrie and others, these Afghans are not refugees.

"We have guests here who have served and sacrificed with us, who helped us, many here previously wounded in combat — all hopeful for a better future," Norrie says.

Base becomes a small town

The Afghans have been here for some six weeks, living in two-story barracks. They stretch like white building blocks across a vast open plain. One entire barracks building is reserved for Afghans who lost limbs in the war.

This base is 60,000 acres and is something of a small town. It currently houses the largest Afghan evacuee population in the U.S. Eight children were born recently. There are all-night grab-and-go cafes, arts and crafts rooms for children.

 A few dozen women sign up for yoga. And there are English classes taught by an Afghan professor. Today he talks about the interaction between a shop owner and a customer.

"When you buy something, you must take your receipt," he tells them.

The classroom is full. A few dozen Afghan children, boys and girls, and a few adults scratch out the words in notebooks.

An Afghan refugee stands outside temporary housing at Fort McCoy.
Barbara Davidson / Getty Images
An Afghan refugee stands outside temporary housing at Fort McCoy.

Some Afghans showed up with nothing but the clothes on their backs, like Alah Muhammed Taraky. He's 31, gaunt with red, tired eyes. He wears a t-shirt and stands outside his barracks with a cluster of men.

The weather is great and the U.S. soldiers are very helpful, he says in his native tongue, Pashto. But he and others have complained about things like the food.

"Actually, the food is not good, I can tell you that," says Fari Ahmed. He's actually an American citizen now, living in Reno, Nevada. But his wife and three children came from Kabul and must complete paperwork before the family can leave together. "We don't eat meat and everything they cook. They mix it together and the women and kids don't like it. They are throwing it away."

Contractors didn't anticipate the number of dinners needed. And some of the meals — like shrimp — were not well received by people from a poor, landlocked country where seafood is rare.

But that has changed, many of the refugees and officials say, noting the food is more in line with Afghan tastes: dates and fruits and vegetables and humus.

The refugees attend a class at the base.
Barbara Davidson / Getty Images
The refugees attend a class at the base.

Much of the talk here is centered on this question: When can we leave?

Afghan Bilal Ahmad follows a reporter and whispers his concerns.

"There are too many refugees here — it's slowing the process," Ahmad says, "we are here a month and there's no progress."

Ahmad says he knows other bases are housing a smaller number of Afghans, like Camp Atterbury in Indiana, where 6,000 refugees are being processed.

Fort McCoy is at 98 percent capacity. It has the largest number of Afghans among the eight Army bases housing them around the nation.

A long cold winter

It's a massive undertake to resettle 13,000 Afghans.

Officials insist there are some Afghans who are already being resettled. They say the majority worked with the U.S. government and brought family members. There are also journalists, human rights advocates and professors.

"We are now at a point at Fort McCoy where we are beginning to resettle larger numbers of people in the coming days and weeks," says Skye Justice, a State Department spokesman taking part in a tour here. "We'll be resettling hundreds and building from there."

Standing in front of a soldier, a young Afghan refugee, who is partially blind, waits in line for new clothes at the military base.
Barbara Davidson / Getty Images
Standing in front of a soldier, a young Afghan refugee, who is partially blind, waits in line for new clothes at the military base.

He says hundreds will likely resettle here in Wisconsin.

Officials here and in Washington say the entire resettlement effort could stretch into next March, as they process paperwork and search for state and cities willing to accept the estimated 55,000 to 65,000 Afghans, who are either already in the U.S. or heading here from American military bases in Europe.

Military officials say they are urging the Afghans to be patient and prepare for a long, cold winter. Fort McCoy is getting donations of winter clothes, boots and blankets. And the fort is gearing up to convert some buildings into play areas for children.

For now, the Afghan refugees dream for the day when they can leave.

Sameer Amini is here with his wife and two kids ages 5 and 2. "I'm looking forward to move to Virginia," he says, "where I have a job offer already with one of the contractors from the U.S. Department of State."

Farzana Mohammadi, 24, who was a member of the Afghan national wheelchair basketball team, hopes she can move to Seattle.
Barbara Davidson / Getty Images
Farzana Mohammadi, 24, who was a member of the Afghan national wheelchair basketball team, hopes she can move to Seattle.

Amini has never been to the U.S. before, though he spent time with Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as a program coordinator.

"I'm looking forward to meeting new people and I'm looking forward to contribute to the society," he said.

He says he has agreed to start his new job in Virginia by Nov. 1 and says he hopes to leave Ft. McCoy sometime this month.

Khwaga Ghani is also among the fortunate Afghans. She worked for NPR in Kabul, has family in California and has a fellowship waiting for her at the University of California-Berkeley.

Farzana Mohammadi's future is less certain because she has no family here or a guaranteed job.

She's just 24 and sits in a wheelchair, wearing a black shirt with the words "New York." She was stricken with polio when she was two years old.

Her dream?

"Basketball is my love," she says and then breaks into giggles. She hopes to live in Seattle, play basketball, attend college and study psychology.

She escaped Kabul with the paralympic team.

 "I have one brother and three sisters," she says. "I always thinking about my family and I'm missing them," she said.

Her parents and one sister stayed in Kabul and her two other two sisters live in Germany while her brother is in Canada, she says.

Volunteers have sorted the bags of clothing for the refugees so they can find what they need. Many arrived with only the clothes on their back.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
Volunteers have sorted the bags of clothing for the refugees so they can find what they need. Many arrived with only the clothes on their back.

A community in need

Across the base, inside a massive warehouse, there are boxes of dresses, scarfs, coats, baby clothes and shoes.

Zikra Akbir, 15, wearing a navy blue hijab and a facemask, is helping her younger sister find a pink jacket.

Many of these donations come from the nearby Wisconsin Army National Guard Armory, where the humanitarian group Team Rubicon is at work. Volunteers fold clothes. Others load up a truck to be driven to Fort McCoy.

A truck arrives at the armory full of blankets. The donations came from a town in northern Wisconsin.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
A truck arrives at the armory full of blankets. The donations came from a town in northern Wisconsin.

Jeff Reagan, a retired Marine colonel who served in Afghanistan, looks out over the dozens of massive carboard boxes.

"We have to sort all of the material that comes in," he says. "Make sure it's appropriate and sort it into various sizes. We have a constant flow of donors coming in. Everyone is very positive. They are very supportive."

When he served in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, Reagan said he never imagined a scene like this: Collecting clothes to help thousands of Afghans just down the highway.

"They are a community in need," he says. "Wisconsin has accepted a lot of communities in the past and they've become solid Wisconsin citizens, U.S. citizens."

Jeff Reagan, a retired Marine, is volunteering to help the refugees.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
Jeff Reagan, a retired Marine, is volunteering to help the refugees.

At the café

At the nearby Meraki Café in Sparta the morning is busy, most customers settle in for coffee and conversation while others get their order to go.

Dave Booker, 73, is a former Marine with a gray ponytail, who sits with his friends in easy chairs. He recalls that Wisconsin welcomed Hmong fighters who served with him in Vietnam. Other refugees came later, he recalls.

"I started working at Fort McCoy when the Cuban refugees came in 1980," he says. As far as the Afghans, he says: "I'm not opposed to their resettlement in the area and I think diversification is not a bad thing."

Not everyone feels the same way. Sparta is largely a conservative community surrounded by farmland. Booker says there's apprehension in the town of some 9,000 residents — several thousand fewer than the Afghan population down the road.

A group of residents in the nearby town of Sparta meet every morning at 7 a.m. at the  Meraki Café on the main street of the town.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
A group of residents in the nearby town of Sparta meet every morning at 7 a.m. at the Meraki Café on the main street of the town.

Adding to the wariness were two incidents at the base: One young Afghan man was arrested for hitting his wife, another for molesting two young boys. These reports lit up social media.

Brian Young is a pastor at Faith Evangelical Free Church in Sparta. He says people read stuff on social media and run with it.

"There have been some horrific, just completely false rumors going around, generated on social media," says Young, who was having breakfast with his wife, Lisa Young, and pastor Jeff Skinner of the nearby Gospel Baptist Church, at the Meraki Café.

"There was one that was shown to be a complete fabrication," says Young, "a carjacking out in Fort McCoy by two Afghan men. It never happened, nor was there any event like it. It was a complete fabrication, and it had some people in a stir."

Young says he hears a lot of misinformation about the Afghans in his community.

Pastor Brian Young of Sparta's Faith Evangelical Free Church and his wife Lisa have been partnering with other local pastors to help the refugee families settle in the U.S.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
Pastor Brian Young of Sparta's Faith Evangelical Free Church and his wife Lisa have been partnering with other local pastors to help the refugee families settle in the U.S.

"People then think -– what are we in for?" he says.

For his part, Eric Borreson, a retired engineer sitting with Booker, says he's supportive of the Afghans coming to the U.S., but wonders if rural Wisconsin is the best place for them.

"I can't imagine that very many Afghans would want to settle in this area," he says. "There is a lack of cultural familiarity for them and they would prefer to be with people who are more like them."

Sparta doesn't have a mosque or a halal store, where foods are processed, produced and stored according to Islamic law.

Jeff Skinner is the pastor at Sparta's Gospel Baptist Church. He and other local church leaders are helping Afghan refugees resettle by raising money and assisting with travel plans.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
Jeff Skinner is the pastor at Sparta's Gospel Baptist Church. He and other local church leaders are helping Afghan refugees resettle by raising money and assisting with travel plans.

Back at Fort McCoy, the question of assimilating is something Nasir Amid doesn't worry about.

He's just happy to be far away from the Taliban who killed some of his neighbors and forced him to keep moving houses constantly. Now he wants a new life with his wife and three kids.

Nasir took part in combat operations with the 101st Airborne in southern Afghanistan, where he worked with Lt. Col. Joe Mickley as an interpreter.

By chance, Mickley was sent to Fort McCoy to help and the two reunited after last seeing each other a decade ago in Kandahar.

Nasir's initial plan was to resettle near a friend in Texas. That changed when he ran into Mickley, who will now sponsor him and his family near his Army base in Kentucky.

Sparta, Wisconsin is home to about 9,000 and is near the Fort McCoy Army base.
/ Jamie Kelter Davis for NPR
Sparta, Wisconsin is home to about 9,000 and is near the Fort McCoy Army base.

Nasir flashes a big smile, he's strong and tall, and wraps his arm around Mickley's shoulder.

"I don't know anything about Kentucky," he says. "I'm not nervous. I'm not thinking about anything because I have my best friend, my best brother."

But when asked by a reporter if he'll ever go back to Afghanistan, Nasir's face turns serious.

"If you have that kind of situation in Afghanistan, like right now we have it. I'm not feeling safe in Afghanistan, I will not go forever," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Young Afghan refugees walk through the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on September 30, 2021 in Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin. The Village is the community housing for the Afghans, comprised of eight neighborhoods where the evacuees live, eat, and receive services and support.
Barbara Davidson / Getty Images
Young Afghan refugees walk through the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on September 30, 2021 in Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin. The Village is the community housing for the Afghans, comprised of eight neighborhoods where the evacuees live, eat, and receive services and support.