How important is being able to read and write English for refugees in Wisconsin?

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 5:25 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The first commercial flight out of Afghanistan since the Taliban seized control took off Friday, September 9, bringing both foreigners and Afghan people to Qatar. Here in Northeast Wisconsin, we are waiting to learn how many refugees will be resettling to our area. World Relief Fox Valley is preparing for 100 individuals.

Once they settle in their new homes, refugee resettlement leaders say it is vital they either learn or sharpen their English skills.

The statewide organization, Wisconsin Literacy, offers English classes for both refugees and Americans who may require more school, for example to get their G.E.D. and better job prospects. Their literacy agencies cover about 86% of Wisconsin counties.

“The ability to communicate is just vital,” Wisconsin Literacy Executive Director Michele Erikson said. “Being able to engage in conversation whether it’s with your employer, health provider, or your children’s teachers, that is all critically important to engaging and being part of a community.”

Wisconsin Literacy and its local literacy agencies offer a range of teaching options depending on how much English someone already knows and where they resettle to. In urban areas, they offer larger classes. However, in less populated regions, they conduct smaller group sessions or individualized tutoring. The importance of reading and writing in English can’t be overstated for refugee resettlement leaders.

“It helps navigate everything,” Tami McLaughlin, office director of World Relief Fox Valley, shared. “First of all, it gives confidence to people when they can communicate. That’s always, I think, one of the biggest deterrents and obstacles in building relationships and friendships because if you don’t speak the language you just don’t feel as much a part of the community.”

The Wisconsin Health Literacy Division began over a decade ago. It focuses on helping patients understand things like their prescriptions and reading pill bottles. Erikson says not being able to read the right dosage information can have serious consequences.

“As refugees come, and they come for many different reasons, some of them are very difficult,” Erikson highlighted. “They’re here with minimal resources so sometimes in those situations that learning is an extreme ask to do that when all these other factors are going on and have changed.”

The statewide organization offers English classes through their partnerships with over 70 literacy agencies. Classes can be divided by comprehension level or family dynamics where mothers will go to a class while their children play with elementary vocabulary.

While Wisconsin Literacy is always looking for more volunteers to help with education like one-on-one tutoring, World Relief Fox Valley is hoping to collect more financial donations. Things like Walmart, Aldi, or Walgreens gift cards can help make this life transition easier. If you’re interested in donating to help the Afghan refugees potentially coming to Northeast Wisconsin, you can visit the World Relief Fox Valley website (click here).

Thousands of Afghan refugees are already in the U.S. including those at Fort McCoy in Western Wisconsin.

“I appreciate, and I’m sure the folks at Fort McCoy appreciate, how welcoming people in Wisconsin are,” executive director of Jewish Social Services, Dawn Berney, emphasized. “That’s all over the state. That really is a big deal and an important deal.” Jewish Social Services is asking for monetary donations as well to give them the flexibility to buy clothing, furniture, medication, and other essentials for refugees once they move to their new homes. If you’re interested in donating to Jewish Social Services, you can click here to learn how.

An estimated 13,000 Afghan refugees will make their way through Fort McCoy as they resettle throughout Wisconsin according to Berney. She is hoping to have refugees leave Fort McCoy in the next week or two to welcome them in places like Madison or Northeast Wisconsin.

Thousands of Afghans remain desperate to get out and away from Taliban rule. Envoys from Qatar expect another 200 passengers to leave Afghanistan tomorrow, September 10, saying more Americans will leave in the next few days. It’s not clear exactly how many are still in Afghanistan, following the conclusion of August’s chaotic evacuations.

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