Wausau Multicultural Community Center celebrates central Wis. community for 1 year of refugee resettlement efforts

Finding Refuge
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 7:24 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - After a year of building a resettlement agency and setting up new lives for 160 people seeking refuge, the Multicultural Community Center - Wausau is celebrating those lives and the community that has supported those efforts. In addition, the president and CEO of MCC’s parent agency, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, is joining in the celebration as the organization celebrates its 40th year in operation.

MCC hosted an event in Wausau Thursday at the Jefferson Street Inn from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The event began with speakers from ECDC, the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, and those who helped to grow the agency in Wausau. Then, the event moved over to the center’s office for an open house from 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. The open house featured refreshments and live music.

“If you tallied up all of the people in central Wisconsin who have had anything to do with refugee resettlement, we would be in the hundreds if not approaching, you know, 1,000 individuals, from volunteers, to professionals, to people working in community agencies,” Adam VanNoord, MCC’s director said. “Our intention for our one-year anniversary celebration is just to make sure that people understand how grateful we are as an agency with such great support, but also for the community to see that this is and has been a collaborative effort.”

MCC was -- as the saying goes -- building the plane while it was flying when VanNoord became the director toward the end of 2021.

“Not only was all of the work new to our community, but it was new to our staff. So, of course, that first year was just jumping in figuring out, you know, how do you set up a successful resettlement agency.”

At the time, they were working to hire staff and get everyone trained while figuring out what resources were available in the community to ensure newcomers would be set up with everything they need. It was all happening as there was an urgent call to resettle Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

“A lot of arrivals really quickly, but I would say we had a great turnout from, you know, community-based support, volunteers resources, and we met those early challenges.”

Now, with 10 full-time staff, regular volunteers, and more solidified community partnerships in place, the pace of individuals and families coming in needing services (roughly 12 individuals or about three to four families per month), VanNoord said they can do this work for the long-term.

“We have three full-time caseworkers and a manager, as opposed to just myself, and, you know, two caseworkers when we started out,” he smiled. So, a lot of it has been about, you know, again, just developing that capacity to do this sustainably.”

He said they have resettled about 50 households, with all but the most recent five newcomers securing jobs in the community. They also have been able to find landlords willing to work with the unique scenarios refugees are placed in and take them on as tenants. VanNoord said they have not had to place any people in long-term temporary housing, thanks to those partnerships.

“We can’t do it (this work) on our own as an agency,” he reiterated. “We don’t have enough funding, and even if we, you know, in the best case scenario, our staff cannot address the broad spectrum of needs that families have when they arrive. But the great news is central Wisconsin seems to be a very giving and generous community; that goes for Marshfield, Stevens Point, and of course, up here in Wausau.”

Those on the receiving end of that generosity say they feel it too.

“Happy anniversary and we really congratulate and salute the work that they are doing, changing the lives of refugees,” Patrick Kabangu, a newcomer originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo said.

Forcefully displaced, dreams/lives taken away

“One thing that a human being always have fear is to start a new life,” Kabangu said with gratitude. “So, you have a lot of perception, a lot of fear, ‘Am I going to make it? How is it going to be because it’s a new place?’ It’s a new culture, you don’t know anyone in that place, but here comes an agency that is helping you.”

He explained, no one chooses to be a refugee. “I always define a refugee as a survivor.”

Patrick Kabangu shares his experience as a refugee. He expressed his gratitude for the people...
Patrick Kabangu shares his experience as a refugee. He expressed his gratitude for the people of central Wisconsin for giving him a "peaceful transition" into this new country.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

He said coming to America was not his dream when he fled his home in the DRC when he was about 16 years old; he is now 34. He and his family lived in a refugee settlement in Zambia since that time. Some of his family, including his mother and some of his siblings, were more quickly sent to Denmark due to medical reasons. He has not seen them in about 10 years. The hopes and dreams he had for his life as he knew them were shattered.

“That dream have been taken away from you. That hope had been taken away from you. Your house had been taken away from you. Your family have been taken away from you. And in that process, you are forced to leave everything behind.” He added, “It’s a very traumatic journey.”

His brother and sister were resettled with Kabangu in Stevens Point. One works at Aspirus, another with the school district, and he was hired on as an interpreter for MCC. He said the people of central Wisconsin, especially his co-sponsorship team have given him a “peaceful transition” into this, much colder new home.

Ferasi Lukendo shares about his life being born in a refugee camp. He is optimistic now being...
Ferasi Lukendo shares about his life being born in a refugee camp. He is optimistic now being in Wausau and has hope his family will eventually join him.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

Ferasi Lukendo shares the same gratitude. The 23-year-old was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania and had been there until he was resettled in Wausau. His family had fled from the DRC too, but his name was the first to come up to get to safety.

“I have hope that God is going to help us and we are going to be reunited.”

With Kabangu interpreting as he spoke Swahili dialect, he said the settlement he was in had a lot of “suffering and languishing.” While the UN’s refugee response agency helped to provide some food, there was never enough.

“Food security was a very big problem and crisis.”

It was difficult to secure work too, but he said he would dream of being a doctor. In Wausau, he is anxiously waiting to find a job and start working, but he also wants to gain an education.

Tulimulugezi Makunya shares his experience living in a refugee camp in Gambia. He and his...
Tulimulugezi Makunya shares his experience living in a refugee camp in Gambia. He and his family waited 11 years to get to safety.(WSAW Tom Zurawski)

Tulimulugezi Makunya, also speaking a dialect of Swahili, shared a similar experience of resettlement life. He and his family were living at a refugee camp in Gambia for 11 years. He reported difficulty having enough food to eat and provide for his family.

“Life in the refugee settlement is very difficult life.”

He and his family of nine were able to come together to Wausau a few weeks ago. He also eagerly awaits employment to provide for his family. He said they all are finding the cold challenging, especially as his children walk to school, but they are grateful to be safe.

“My family is so happy to be here in America.”

“I think it’s a restoration of hope for someone for somebody who have lost everything,” Kabangu said about the generosity and kindness they have seen from the community.

Ways to help

VanNoord said there are so many different ways people can help, whether they have a little or a lot of time.

“Some people like interacting with our clients. And so perhaps serving as an ELL tutor, or helping out with English conversation in an informal way would be a great place to get involved. We always need people willing to do heavy lifting, literally... when we set up houses. A big need is the community co-sponsorship program.”

The co-sponsorship program are teams of people who support each individual or family arriving. They help them get to and from appointments, get acquainted with the community and resources, and help them in any way they can.

For those interested in learning more about how to help, click here.

Learn more

The Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service has begun a special discussion series in partnership with ECDC to help the community understand the refugee process and learn about those who have arrived in central Wisconsin.

The first discussion took place last week, but a video recording is available here. The next discussion will happen on Wed. Jan. 25 from 7-8:30 p.m. at the UW Center for Civic Engagement. For details, click here.