ROCHESTER, Minn. Ben Harris used his paid time off to help supply Afghan evacuees in Wisconsin with essential clothing items.

Returning to work felt like a vacation in comparison.

Harris, manager at Shoe Dept. Encore at Apache Mall in Rochester, volunteered with Team Rubicon to help sort thousands of donated items sent to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

Team Rubicon is coordinating the effort to provide clothing to more than 12,500 Afghan evacuees living on the base. Fort McCoy is one of eight U.S. military bases housing the more than 50,000 Afghans who fled their country when Taliban forces overthrew the government in August.

“There were so many items coming in every day,” Harris said. “It was really quite amazing.”

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He returned to work Monday after seven days of volunteer duty.

“I’m young, I have the energy,” the 22-year-old added.

Items for Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., at the National Guard Armory in Sparta, Wis. Contributed / Ben Harris
Items for Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., at the National Guard Armory in Sparta, Wis. Contributed / Ben Harris

Volunteers like Harris are sorting tens of thousands of items for evacuees every day and sending them to the nearby military base.

John Stuhlmacher said he’s glad when he sees Amazon boxes arrive at the temporary sorting facility.

“We may not know what’s in the box, but we know it’s something we can use,” said Stuhlmacher, senior operations associate with Team Rubicon.

Stuhlmacher said the evacuees there need culturally appropriate clothing, winter clothing and underwear.

Of the tens of thousands of items arriving, not all donations are needed.

A box of kitchen sponges?

“We’ve seen that,” he said.

“We also get a lot of swimwear including bikinis,” he added. “That’s what we mean by culturally appropriate.”

Stuhlmacher said the organization has tried to prioritize evacuees who left after a bombing incident outside the Kabul airport. Following the bombing, evacuees boarding flights to the U.S. weren’t allowed to bring baggage. This sped up the security process, but came at a cost.

“People literally came only with the clothes on their back,” Stuhlmacher said.

People trying to help were already behind before they arrived, he added.

“We started out here behind the ball,” he said. “When we got here, there was already a couple thousand people at Fort McCoy.”

Stuhlmacher set up an Amazon wish list on the Team Rubicon website for people who want to help to ensure items the people need the most continue to come in.

While used items are appreciated, new items are preferred because they require less sorting time and are in wearable condition.

“People have different definitions of 'gently used,'" Stuhlmacher said.

Harris said he sorted some winter items, but knows cold weather can set in fast.

“We know how quickly it can go from 60 degrees to 40 to 20,” Harris said.

Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota is collecting cash donations to help with the effort and is working with the Minnesota Department of Human Services Refugee Program to help some of the refugees in Wisconsin find temporary homes in Minnesota.

The department announced it will bring about 300 refugees to Minnesota under special immigrant visas. Those visas are given to people who have directly assisted the U.S. military. Refugees can also apply for the visa status if their lives are in danger because of their connection to U.S. forces.

Rashid Fehmi, of the Rochester Muslim Community Circle, said the group is taking cues for now from the Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota for what the local Muslim community can do to help the refugees.

Rashid Fehmi outside his home in Rochester on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. "One thing I remember is how the Rochester community came together to support the Muslims," he said. Fehmi recalled realizing that there were concerns about the safety of Muslims following the attack. "I went to pray that afternoon at the Mosque downtown and the door was locked," Fehmi said. Area churches opened their doors to Muslims as places to pray while the Masjid Abubakar Siddiq mosque was temporarily closed for security concerns. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rashid Fehmi outside his home in Rochester on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. "One thing I remember is how the Rochester community came together to support the Muslims," he said. Fehmi recalled realizing that there were concerns about the safety of Muslims following the attack. "I went to pray that afternoon at the Mosque downtown and the door was locked," Fehmi said. Area churches opened their doors to Muslims as places to pray while the Masjid Abubakar Siddiq mosque was temporarily closed for security concerns. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“We can definitely make provisions for anyone who arrives and help them,” Fehmi said. “We can easily gather items that are needed.”

The refugees would likely be welcomed. A poll of 800 registered voters conducted by MPR News/Star Tribune, KARE-11 and Frontline Minnesota shows 53% of Minnesotans would support resettling Afghan refugees in their communities.

Fehmi said the Muslim community will be able to help with other needs such as housing, finding employment and learning English.

“Right now, we are kind of in a holding pattern,” he said.