Inside the US military base where 11,000 Afghans are starting over

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COMMON BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, NJ – Sana Khairi, an 18-year-old Afghan woman with big brown eyes, knew precisely how long she had been living in a temporary camp on a military base in New Jersey: 47 days.

After fleeing Afghanistan when the Taliban took power, she and her mother and four siblings traveled through Germany before arriving at what has become the Liberty Village, a community that has grown almost overnight. overnight to contain a population greater than half of the cities of New Jersey.

There are now 11,000 people living there – more evacuees than at any of the other six U.S. bases still hosting families evacuated from Afghanistan as the U.S.’s 20-year war in the country reached its chaotic end at the end of August.

It is the only place that still accepts new Afghan arrivals from abroad, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It will likely be among the last sites to close, due to its accommodation capacity and proximity to Philadelphia, the main US port of entry for newcomers, officials said Thursday as they offered the first visit. media of the camp.

Up to four Afghan planes continue to arrive weekly in New Jersey from overseas shelters where 3,300 people await their turn to enter the United States as part of the largest refugee evacuation in war from Vietnam.

About 37,000 of the approximately 73,000 non-US citizens evacuated from Afghanistan are still awaiting resettlement in towns and villages across the country by refugee agencies struggling with a shortage of affordable housing and the scale of the operation.

“One of the biggest challenges is the pace of arrivals,” said Avigail Ziv, executive director for New York and New Jersey of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement organization. “It’s a really new situation. “

Ms Khairi and her family have learned that they will be transferred to Buffalo, a city they have no connection with but where she hopes to enroll in college and eventually study medicine.

Her father, whose work with the American war effort helped win the family’s safe passage to the United States, remains in Afghanistan, where the economy has all but collapsed and hunger is rampant.

“There is so much worry about the winter there,” Ms. Khairi said through an interpreter. “Already, there is no work, there is no money. So how can they survive?

In New Jersey, around 3,500 people have left for permanent homes since the first Afghans began arriving at the sprawling base southeast of Trenton on August 24.

“The only thing we can say is ‘thank you’,” said Ghulam Eshan Sharifi, 67, a lab technician and pharmacist from Kabul who allied with the US military during the war. “I have advised my children, my grandsons, to embrace this country, to work hard for this country.

But the boredom is almost as palpable as the underlying hope. There is also fear.

The # 1 question newcomers ask themselves is about the family left behind.

“How can I get them out of Afghanistan? US Space Force Captain Ron Miller, a Pashto speaker who leads a team to acclimate newcomers, expressed the common concern. “How can I keep them safe? “

The site is divided into three villages, each with its own so-called mayor – a senior military official responsible for managing the area and holding town hall-style meetings. The Afghans are housed either in military barracks or in studio-style rooms in one of 19 reinforced white tents that can accommodate 512 people each.

A large medical space includes a pharmacy, pediatric and dental care, x-ray machines and a laboratory.

During the first month, 24 babies were born. Since then, 76 more newborns have arrived.

During the tightly controlled tour of the base, men could be seen standing in small groups, chatting. Some were dressed in traditional Afghan tunics, patterned scarves and sandals; others wore Nike sneakers and down jackets. Women were pushing strollers near a playground and one of the many dining rooms. Children were everywhere.

Thefts and minor assaults were reported, internal security officials said, but no crimes were committed. Over 100 English lessons are offered each week. Academic classes for the 3,000 children living on the base are planned, but there is no firm start date.

As the days get darker and colder, some families have grown discouraged, aid workers and current and former residents said.

Some even made the difficult decision to leave the base on their own, without the help of a resettlement agency – a permitted but discouraged choice that is known as “independent departure”.

“There is frustration,” said a 30-year-old Afghan temporarily living in Montclair, New Jersey, who left the base’s gates late last month with his pregnant wife and two sons, including one has epilepsy. “People are upset. “

“The day I left there was a big line of independent departures,” added the man, who said he had worked with US forces as a combat translator for 10 years and requested anonymity in because of a concern for the safety of relatives who are still alive. in Kabul.

His family, he said, was to be moved to California, but they chose to leave the base on their own and stay in New Jersey so their 5-year-old son could continue to be treated for the epilepsy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. .

“For people with young children, it’s very difficult,” said Silen Hussanzada, a 25-year-old woman from the military base who evacuated Kabul at the end of the summer and is fluent in English. “There are activities for them, but there aren’t many.

Ms Hussanzada, who arrived in the country on her own and became a volunteer language teacher and advocate for women, said it was increasingly common for people to choose to leave without the immediate support of a resettlement agency.

She expects an agency to help her move to Dayton, Ohio, where she plans to continue her law school.

Like Ms. Hussanzada, a large majority of evacuees arriving in the United States will be placed in communities by one of nine national refugee agencies, which work with hundreds of smaller community organizations. Eight in 10 of the 35,000 Afghans already in new communities arrived there with the help of a resettlement agency, said Angelo Fernandez, spokesperson for internal security.

Anyone leaving the base must have passed rigorous security checks and be fully vaccinated. Many of those who have chosen to go alone have family already living in the United States or close friends who have arranged for accommodation.

Katy Swartz, who helps lead the State Department’s efforts, was at the New Jersey base when the first Afghans arrived, and said she often watched families get on buses to leave. “It’s incredibly moving,” she said.

She acknowledged that some evacuees might be disappointed in their new hometown, or might be anxious to leave.

“But as people left on their own,” she said, “I think some messages came back, ‘It’s really hard.’”

New Jersey Democrat Representative Mikie Sherrill visited Liberty Village on Tuesday.

“I am so optimistic for these evacuees – many of whom saved the lives of American servicemen,” said Ms. Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot.

But she said it was clear the operation was entering a “very stressful time.”

“I want to continue to make sure that if they stay there for a while, we make sure that the kids can start entering primary and secondary education and getting to grips with our American system,” Ms. Sherrill. noted.

Operation “Allies Welcome” is overseen by a multitude of federal agencies and thousands of American troops. Its ultimate end date largely depends on how quickly refugee agencies can complete the resettlement effort.

“We don’t feel any pressure,” Ms. Swartz said.

And they continue to make grassroots improvements, some of which seemed designed for the long haul.

About 300,000 tonnes of construction gravel was laid over a previously open field to create roads that make it easier to push strollers and remove common mud after it rains. An overwhelming but scattered first flow of donations was tailored to the specific needs of each base using an Amazon wishlist. The accommodation tents have been reinforced with vinyl liner to keep them warm during the winter. All meal preparation is now done on site.

While Ms. Khairi dreams of becoming a doctor, she creates works of art including a poem and paintings on display at the base for visitors. She said she was immensely grateful to have the opportunity to freely pursue her ambitions in the United States.

But she said she found it painful to think of women her age still living in Afghanistan.

“I have more dreams to fulfill,” she said, “and I worry about the dreams of these girls.”

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