Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay, WI

Helping the next wave of refugees in Wisconsin

News footage in mid-August detailed the plight of tens of thousands of Afghans desperately fleeing their homeland as the Taliban recaptured control after 20 years. Within weeks, nearly 13,000 refugees arrived at Fort McCoy near Tomah, Wis. As with Hmong, Bosnian and Somali refugees from decades past, our Sisters compassionately responded. 

CLOTHING THE NAKED: Sister Laura Zelten, left, and UWGB student Renae Vanden Plas assist in sorting clothing donations at Catholic Charities of Green Bay. 

‘Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me’

Trip to refugee camp was about living the Gospel and seeing people’s resilience

by Sister Laura Zelten and Renae Vanden Plas

Our visit to Fort McCoy

Through a project in Renae Vanden Plas’ non-profit management class at UW-Green Bay, we learned about the overwhelming needs among Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy near Tomah, Wis. Renae shadowed the staff at Catholic Charities of Green Bay where she learned how she and other students could help. From Nov. 12 to 14, Renae and Sister Laura Zelten, Catholic campus minister at UWGB, accompanied Catholic Charities’ staff to Fort McCoy.

What we observed

We were overwhelmed to know that there were 13,000 people living in the barracks at Fort McCoy. This included families and single men and women. It was difficult to see how they were uprooted from everything they knew and arrived in the U.S. with only the clothes on their backs and flip-flops on their feet -- in November. Even so, their smiles were warm and beautiful. They were loving and protective of one another. The children were happy and strong and unafraid. They tried to speak English and their favorite phrase was “excuse me” for everything!

We worked with 92 children ages 1 to 14. Through the commotion we braided bracelets, painted with watercolors, and created things with play dough. The walls of the children’s center were filled with their artwork. When language was a barrier and translators weren’t available, hand gestures and head shaking got the message across.

There was a sewing center at Fort McCoy where women could choose two pieces of fabric to make their traditional dress. It amazed us how they could cut and sew without a pattern. They helped one another to finish within their 2.5- hour time slot. The finished product looked so professional and well done. Amazing!

The volunteers were untiring and generous. Donations were plentiful: toys for the children, fabric for the women, and warm coats for many. Catholic Charities of Green Bay and La Crosse led the way in welcoming our brothers and sisters.

Radical Hospitality

Serving our Afghan brothers and sisters left us wondering where they were going to settle and how they were going to enter our culture. This experience opened our eyes to all we have. We really live privileged lives. We wanted to do more to help the refugees transition to life here. But above all, the service trip changed our view of how we see the face of Christ in others. It was a time to live our baptismal call to love and welcome the stranger as Jesus instructs (Mt. 25:35-40). We will always remember the refugees in our prayers.

SPIRIT OF GIVING: Instead of exchanging gifts with one another, Sisters Maria Drzewiecki (left), Francis Bangert, Rose Jochmann and Nancy Langlois agreed to purchase some kitchen and bathroom items for Afghan refugees. The gifts were donated to and distributed by Catholic Charities of Green Bay. (Renae Bauer photo)

Accompanying refugees and migrants through the decades

Our Community was founded in 1868 to help immigrant children and adults learn about Jesus and receive an education. The first Sisters knew French, English and German but the Sisters learned Dutch so they could communicate with the parents and students from Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Since then our Sisters have assisted in resettling Belgian, Hmong, Bosnian and Somali families. We’ve been blessed to tutor Hmong, Somali and Hispanic individuals, and visit migrant camps in Northern Wisconsin to provide health care and English instruction. Our mission continues today as we assist Afghans with setting up households, navigating grocery stores and adjusting to life in the United States. Here are some examples:

  • Sister Sally Ann Brickner volunteers with Catholic Charities of Green Bay. During her time she helped build a database, accept and sort donations, and cared for children as parents attended cultural orientation. 
  • Instead of exchanging Christmas presents, the Sisters of one household purchased new kitchen and bathroom items and donated them to Catholic Charities for distribution to refugees. See above photo.
  • The Community made a monetary gift to Catholic Charities for resettlement needs.

 -- compiled by Community Archivist Sister Agnes Fischer and Communications Director Renae Bauer

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