Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy thrust into adjusting to things they’ve never seen, soldier says

Lt. Col. Erik Archer, a military science prof at UWL, illustrates adjustments through anecdotes, poem
Afghan Children Attend School At Fort Mccoy
An Afghan evacuee volunteer teaches another evacuee English at Fort McCoy. The classes assist Afghan evacuees, who are here as part of Operation Allies Welcome, as they transition to life in the United States.. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Rhianna Ballenger, 55th Signal Company, courtesy of DVIDS)
Courtesy of DVIDS

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Lt. Col. Erik Archer tells the story of an orphaned 10-year-old girl he met during one of his two tours in Afghanistan to illustrate the vast adjustments Afghan refugees are experiencing at Fort McCoy, Wis., and other refugee sites in the United States.

Archer, a military science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said he wrote to his mother and told her of the stark conditions surrounding the girl and her siblings. She marshaled the forces at St. Joseph Church in Libertyville, Ill., who gathered clothing, supplies and items such as crayons to send to him.

Speaking at a forum at Viterbo University in La Crosse Wednesday night on how to support Afghan evacuees, Archer explained that Afghanistan basically is just one color: brown.

U.S. soldiers and Afghans during his deployment were separated with fences topped with razor wire, he said, so he had to reach over the barriers to pass the gifts to the girl and other children on the other side.

“I thought she would be excited when I handed her the crayons,” said Archer, because he believed that the youngsters would welcome the opportunity to draw colorful pictures.

To his surprise, he said, “They promptly started eating the crayons, because they never had seen crayons.”

Archer, a native of Fargo, N.D., also used a poem titled “Home,” by Warsan Shire, to illustrate the refugees’ desperate plight in fleeing their native land.

The first stanza is:
“no one leaves home unless
“home is the mouth of a shark
“you only run for the border
“when you see the whole city running as well”
The final stanza is:
“no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
“run away from me now
“i don’t know what i’ve become
“but i know that anywhere
“is safer than here.”

That said, Archer noted that serving in the Army taught him that humans are the same, regardless of their origins.

“In my experience, we’re all people — there’s a great commonality among us,” he said, adding, “The Afghan Erik is the same Erik as in the U.S.”

Asked why Americans should even help the refugees when they face so many problems, including homelessness, food insecurity, veteran issues and mental health challenges, he said, “We can do both things. … We have the opportunity to change their lives. I would challenge us. We can help.”

Other panelists addressed issues such as what types of assistance are available to the nearly 13,000 refugees at Fort McCoy, including a legal center, learning centers, three women and children’s centers.

The Afghans actually set up two learning centers themselves, and the ones being created now with the help of Catholic Charities of the La Crosse Diocese and volunteers are replicating those centers, a panelist said.

Bottom line, Archer said, “I am thrilled for our outpouring of love.”

The livestream of the panel, which Viterbo, UWL and and Western Technical College sponsored, will be available on Viterbo’s website.

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