‘We are here for refugees’: Madison ready to welcome Ukrainians, but capacity concerns remain

Wisconsin waits on instructions as federal government announces influx of Ukraine refugees

MADISON, Wis. — After resettling more refugees in the past six months than in any other year since they started, Madison’s only refugee resettlement agency has concerns about capacity—but is ready if they’re tapped to help house refugees fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With more than 3.5 million so far fleeing the war since it began one month ago, the federal government announced Thursday that the United States would welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and others trying to escape the conflict. They may come under a variety of programs, including the humanitarian parole that many Afghan refugees used as a pathway into the country, but CNN reports that the specifics are not yet finalized.

“Many Ukrainian refugees will wish to stay in Europe, closer to their homes, but we’ll also welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States with a focus on reuniting families,” Biden said.

It’s those details to be set by the federal government that state refugee programs and resettlement agencies like Madison’s Jewish Social Services are waiting on before they can determine how to prepare if they’re needed.

With the help of some federal funds and a lot of donations, JSS is one out of six resettlement agencies in Wisconsin responsible for finding homes for refugees and helping them get jobs, initial funds, support and resources in the community.

“It is our mission that we work with everyone, whether that’s from Afghanistan or from Ukraine or from Africa or from anywhere else in the world,” executive director Dawn Berney said. “I really do want to stress that we are here for refugees, no matter where they are from.”

Wisconsin has resettled few Ukrainians

Wisconsin’s Ukrainian refugee population is fairly small, with 100 resettled largely in Green Bay and Milwaukee between 2001 and 2019, according to state data. A few resettled in Dane County.

On Thursday, Wisconsin’s Bureau of Refugee Programs had little information about how many Ukrainians the state may be asked to receive, or how soon they may come.

Those conversations will be happening at a federal level over the coming weeks, a spokesperson said, as the federal government works with national resettlement agencies to plan how many refugees each could take, and from there the feds will announce how many will be designated to each state.

“As with the recent Afghan resettlement under Operation Allies Welcome, Wisconsin stands ready to support and welcome any new neighbors,” a spokesperson with Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families said.

Afghan refugee crisis hardly over

Wisconsin welcomed hundreds of Afghan refugees for permanent homes in the past several months, a process that strained local resettlement agencies to capacity and has left Berney concerned about how many more they can handle.

RELATED: Torn apart: Local efforts to help Afghan refugees marked by both tears and triumph

JSS has resettled 72 of the 75 Afghan refugees they were designated to help. In total, they will be able to resettle 155 refugees from across the globe for the current fiscal year–and one of Berney’s core unanswered questions is whether Ukrainian refugees would be in addition to or fill those slots.

“I’m really wondering who has capacity…We have already resettled more this year than we typically do in an entire year,” Berney said. “We never want to turn anyone down.”

Since JSS began resettling refugees in 2017, their typical capacity prior to the Afghan refugee crisis was between 17 and around 60 a year. They’ve greatly expanded staffing to accommodate the new influx as they continue working with refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Congo, and other countries–but the process has been overwhelming, particularly when they’re given little notice for a new family.

“For anyone who knows the housing market in Madison, trying to find a safe place on a bus line that is affordable with less than a week’s notice is just asking for trouble,” she explained.

RELATED: An affordable housing crisis: Afghan refugees in Madison

Currently, the Washington Post reports that the federal government is only on track to admit 15,000 refugees under the country’s formal refugee program because of ongoing backlogs, despite the year’s cap of 125,000. It’s so far unclear whether the federal government would use other, quicker pathways to admit Ukrainians–and how many of them would seek permanent versus temporary shelter.