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First 2 refugee families resettled in Wausau finishing cultural orientation

Finding Refuge
Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 7:24 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The first two families from Afghanistan to be resettled in Wausau are about to hit a milestone in their resettlement process. After nearly three weeks in central Wisconsin, they are on schedule to complete the federally required eight-hour cultural orientation and begin English language lessons.

The school-aged children are already enrolled and have begun school, with at least one student who rode the bus without assistance Tuesday. In the meantime, the adults, plus one young child, gathered around a table at the Marathon County Literacy Council to continue the cultural training. Tuesday’s lesson was a bit of review along with some new lessons about transportation in Wausau.

“We have a lot of rules and I forget about that because we were introduced to them very gradually and now, you know, we have to give them all at once. It’s like a fire hose on them,” Mary Testin, the tutor program’s volunteer coordinator said.

She explained the families are comprehending and moving through the content quickly, though Matiullah Matie, who is fluent in English, said his family has found learning English on top of these rules challenging. He noted, they are up for this challenge, however, after the experiences they had back in Afghanistan.

“People need to remember, they don’t use our alphabet in addition to our language and our numbers, so this is all new for them,” Testin noted.

Some of the rules in America are the same as in Afghanistan, like what side of the street people should walk on: against traffic.

“People must walk on this way to see the driver and the driver see him,” Matie said.

Others are nuances to the systems or new lessons, like the driver’s license permit program and the point system once someone gets their license.

“When you get in an accident and it’s your fault, they take so many points off of your license,” Testin explained. “If you get to 12 points within five years, your license is canceled.”

“This is important,” Matie responded.

They also learned the bus system, looking at the maps to understand how to get around the city as well as taking a ride to practice.

“They will have a test at the end of it (the cultural orientation) asking them, you know, questions like, why is it important to learn English? What are some of the rules you have to follow in America? Things like that,” Testin said. She explained they can answer in their native language -- Pashto for these families -- and have an interpreter if needed.

Once they pass their cultural orientation test, they can begin English language learning classes, which Testin said she expects to begin next week. At the same time, they will be welcoming newly arrived refugees who will begin the cultural orientation.

“It’ll be a little crazy. We’ll have different levels of English learning for them to do.”

With this being the first group of refugees to arrive through the new resettlement agency, Multicultural Community Center - Wausau, Testin said they are still working out the kinks and trying to figure out the best way to meet the needs of the families and the federal requirements. They are working to find a way to have separate classes for the men and women, something that has been culturally challenging for the families learning all in the same space.

All of the lessons and assistance are designed to help these individuals and families ultimately become self-sufficient quickly so they can live their lives in their new homes. The individuals in the class expressed immense gratitude towards the kind welcoming and assistance they have received.

“‘Manana’ mean(s), ‘thank you,’” Matie said to the volunteers.

While they are learning a lot of rules and laws, which can be a bit dry, at times the similarities draw out stories.

Connie Heidemann, McLit’s executive director told them they will be receiving bikes when the weather gets warmer. Matie laughed he wanted a motorbike, though caveating that he is very grateful. It triggered Matie to tell a story about the motorbike he had in Afghanistan.

He said he had a motorbike in Afghanistan and he equated his motorbike to the way people here love their dogs.

“Sometimes here, their dogs are harnessed with people and it is living at their homes like the people in their homes. So, they are loving their dogs. I always love my motorbike,” he smiled.

He said he helped to lead US Marine Corps. tanks on his motorbike, taking them through paths that did not have roadside bombs.

To ensure the Taliban could not take or use his motorbike, he said he switched the placement of the accelerator and clutch, making it difficult for anyone but him and the two Marines he taught to use it. He said sometimes he even left it on the ground when the Taliban would attack.

“When the Taliban was shooting me, I was pushing the accelerator on the left hand like this (motioning that he switched the handles that typically hold the accelerator). No one could drive my motorbike because the clutch was here (motioning with his right hand).”

He said that is why he wants a motorbike.

With the adults still in the process of obtaining jobs, the families noted if people are looking to help them, they are in need of bus passes. New Beginnings for Refugees is coordinating donations and volunteer help for refugees.

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