Wausau family working on a safe haven for refugees coming to central Wisconsin

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 7:01 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Community organizations and volunteers are working to prepare and welcome about 85 refugees to central Wisconsin over the fiscal year. One of the big needs being worked on is housing for those individuals and families.

Rebecca and James Voss and their seven children had been saving up to purchase a property they would rent to help a need in the Wausau community. They prayed on it.

“The thing that really drew us to this is what the representative from ECDC told us is the hardest thing sometimes can be convincing landlords to rent to refugees,” Rebecca Voss said, referring to the resettlement agency, Ethiopian Community Development Council. “Refugees don’t come with credit reports. They don’t have jobs when they first arrive. They don’t have rental references.”

Refugees are set up with some resources and services when they arrive in the U.S., including housing costs being taken care of by the federal government for a few months. Sponsorship groups also contribute to help people get settled to handle some of the bills as they learn the language and find work.

The Vosses said this early support can give landlords peace of mind and assurance that rent will be paid despite a lack of credit or rental history. They said they are not an independently wealthy family and believe it could be within reach for more people to become landlords to help fill the need for affordable housing, not just to refugees, but others who need it as well.

Rebecca is a pastor at First United Methodist Church in Wausau and James works with homeless individuals at North Central Community Action Program. They have been actively working with ECDC as the agency worked with the federal government to find a place to set up a new office in Wisconsin. Wausau was outside of 50-mile ranges of other resettlement agencies in the state and was deemed a community that had the community support.

“We just closed on the house, I think it was, the 25th of September, so pretty recently. I had grand plans to get everything ready in five days, but things never go quite as planned,” she laughed.

They used the money they were saving to put a down payment on a rental property paired with their stimulus checks and a commercial loan.

“This was a diamond in the ruff. We looked at a lot of stuff,” James Voss noted.

They had a lot on their checklist when looking for a home -- doing their research to be mindful of common refugee needs.

“We knew that we wanted to be within Wausau and close to the bus system because when refugees come, they aren’t going to have cars and driver’s licenses and all of that. They need to be close to the services, to jobs, to schools, and to the bus system,” Rebecca Voss listed.

They also were mindful of possible family dynamics, like multigenerational families living under one roof, or the potential of renting the home to two separate families at once. A pocket door that locks is able to section off the house to allow for two families to have full home amenities, including kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, or to be opened up for one big family.

At the time they were giving NewsChannel 7 a tour of the home, they were bringing back old wood floors to life, retiling, and putting together beds with family dynamics in mind. Many refugee families have children all sleep in the same room, but some are not comfortable with bunk beds, so the Vosses opted for small twin beds to potentially fit several children into one room all on the floor level.

They brightened up the basement, with the thought that the family could have children do outdoor activities indoors if they are not used to snow, or to start a small business out of their home.

“There’s so much potential,” Rebecca Voss exclaimed.

The living room opens up to the family room allowing for a large space to fit many people at once.

“There’s room for everybody to feel welcome. There’s room for people to gather who may not be part of their family, but say ‘hey we want to learn your customs...’”

The hope is to help the refugee families feel safe and welcomed but to also encourage people to show kindness and curiosity to learn about new cultures coming to Wausau.

“We have a lot to be excited about as we prepare not to give into the fear-mongering,” Rebecca Voss said.

“Keep an open mind,” her husband added.

“Keep an open mind and an open heart,” she concluded.

To learn about how to help, whether it is to offer a place for refugees to rent, job opportunities, furniture, or to volunteer, click here.

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