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La Crosse Catholic Charities says Afghans living at Fort McCoy will need support ‘for the long run’

Charitable organization expects Afghans will be living on base until at least next June, will be providing recreational, educational activities

Afghan Evacuees Head to School at Fort McCoy
Afghan evacuees at the Enforcer Women’s Class hosted on Fort McCoy, Wisconsin participate in class, Oct. 15, 2021. The school hosts multiple English classes for adults, women only, children and those already fluent in English. The school is run by volunteer Afghan evacuees and Soldiers of Task Force McCoy as part of Operation Allies Welcome.  Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins/U.S. Army

Roberto Partarrieu, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse, said a lot has changed since his organization was first asked in August to help welcome Afghan evacuees temporarily staying at Fort McCoy.

“Initially, we were brought on board to assist with organizing and facilitating a legal center and a women and children’s center. In the last six weeks, the mission has grown,” Partarrieu said.

With around 12,600 people currently living at the base, Partarrieu said they’re now running three women and children’s centers. They’ve also set up a sewing center with around 50 sewing machines for Afghans interested in creating their own clothing, as well as two English learning centers for children and young adults and six indoor recreation areas with athletic equipment for all ages.

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Partarrieu says they’ve scaled up services because the base is expected to host Afghan evacuees much longer than the group initially thought.

“We are in it for the long run. This is going to last for at least a year. That’s what we were told, and I think it’s going to be more,” Partarrieu said. “We think it’s going to be at least until June, July of next year.”

While some evacuees have left the base for resettlement, Partarrieu said an equal number of new Afghans have arrived to begin the immigration process there. He said the pace of departures and arrivals has been slow, and their centers continue to be full.

Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse announced on Wednesday that they were donating $10,000 to Catholic Charities to help support the programs.

“From the onset, we knew it was important to be involved from a healthcare standpoint,” said Dr. Caroline Wilker from Mayo. “However, we felt it was critical to step up and demonstrate our values and humanitarianism and to provide more than healthcare and giving additional support for those who were meeting the needs of the refugees.”

Partarrieu said the funding from Mayo will help purchase gym equipment for the new recreation areas and roughly 5,000 more winter coats that are needed.

He estimates Catholic Charities has already spent “in the hundreds of thousands” of dollars on supplies for the Afghans and has received an outpouring of support from local residents and people across the state.

But like most charitable initiatives, Partarrieu said they’re bracing for a possible slow-down in giving.

“When something is new, everybody wants to participate. But then it gets old and it gets tiring,” Partarrieu said. “We know that this is going to happen. But the community in La Crosse and the community in Wisconsin has been extremely generous and they have supported us for many years.”

He estimates that the group will also need around 80 to 100 volunteers a day to operate all of their centers.

Partarrieu said providing services to the evacuees living at the base is not only about meeting humanitarian needs, but helping them through the trauma that comes from fleeing your home.

“Can you imagine leaving your life in a rush the way that it happened? And finding yourself in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, and you don’t know where the rest of your family is, and you’re trying to take care of the family that is with you, and you don’t have any power in terms of what’s going to happen to you?,” Partarrieu said. “We need to be patient, we need to be loving, and we need to care. And that’s not through feeling but through action.”

Last week, officials from Task Force McCoy, the task force of government agencies providing services to the evacuees at the base, announced they were working with gender and protection advisors from the U.S. Department of Defense to set up emergency child care and respite centers for women.