Evacuated Afghans Wait 12/08 06:31
Approximately 11,000 evacuated Afghans wait from the safety of a U.S. base
in central New Jersey, enduring a prolonged resettlement process.
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. (AP) -- The former interpreter for
the U.S. Army counts himself among the lucky as an Afghan who managed to make
it through frantic crowds outside the Kabul airport to board a military
evacuation flight out of the country with little more than the clothes on his
Esrar Ahmad Saber now waits, along with 11,000 other Afghans, from the
safety of a U.S. base in central New Jersey, while worrying about family
members left behind and enduring a prolonged resettlement process.
Saber has been at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey
since Aug. 26 as has nearly everyone else at one of the three "villages" set up
there for refugees. "They want to go to their new homes and start their new
lives," the 29-year-old said. "They are really excited about it. But the fact
is, the process is very slow."
The slow pace has become a defining characteristic of Operation Allies
Welcome, the largest U.S. refugee resettlement effort in decades. Even as
Afghans still arrive, thousands remain in limbo, anxious about their future as
they fearfully follow the news of Taliban reprisals and economic collapse back
in their homeland.
Operation Allies Welcome reached a milestone this week as the number
resettled in American communities -- 37,000 -- surpassed the 35,000 at six
bases around the country. But people involved with the effort readily concede
it's been a challenge for a number of reasons, including a scarcity of
affordable housing, cutbacks to refugee programs under Trump as well as the
sheer number of refugees.
"It's been a shock to the system because we just haven't had this many
people arrive at the same time in a really, really long period," said Erol
Kekic, a senior vice president with Church World Service, one of nine national
resettlement agencies working with the government in what is formally known as
Operation Allies Welcome.
The resettlement organizations and the Department of Homeland Security, the
lead federal agency in the effort, are working toward a goal of having everyone
off the bases by Feb. 15. The New Jersey installation now hosts the largest
number, down from a high of 14,500, followed by Fort McCoy in Wisconsin with
There are 3,200 more at overseas transit points awaiting flights to the U.S.
as well as some still making it out of Afghanistan.
"I feel pretty good about our chances of moving everybody off the base
before that day," Kekic said. "Whether or not we get there by Feb. 15, I think
remains to be seen."
The government last week conducted a guided tour for journalists of the New
Jersey installation, where refugees stay in brick buildings previously used as
barracks or in sprawling tent-like prefabricated structures.
There are fields for soccer, courts for basketball and cavernous warehouses
where refugees receive clothes and other supplies. There are also classrooms
for the children, who make up about 40% of the population, as well as language
lessons and job training for adults and a medical clinic.
Afghans staying at the base go through immigration processing as well as
health screening and vaccinations, including for COVID-19. More than 100 babies
have been born to women at the base.
Saber, who came from Afghanistan by himself and left a brother and sister
behind, says the refugees are happy, just eager to move on. "It's a dream to be
here. They just want to get out as soon as possible."
Among the refugees are new arrivals as well. Ghulam Eshan Sharifi, a
microbiologist, came on Nov. 14 with his wife and two children after 23 days in
Qatar. He was relieved but worried about his adult daughters back in Kabul who
held government jobs before the Taliban returned.
"They have no jobs now. They cannot even go outside so we are obviously
afraid about what will happen to them," Sharifi said. "We are hoping that God
will solve the problem."
He said he hopes to settle in the Denver area but does not yet know when, or
if, that will happen. "This is just the beginning for us," he added.
Many refugees are also recovering from what was for many a traumatic escape
from a country that collapsed much more quickly than the U.S. government, at
least publicly, anticipated.
"Most, if not all of them have worked with our forces and they have been
part of the U.S. effort in some way," said Air Force Col. Soleiman Rahel, who
came to the U.S. with his family as a refugee from Afghanistan when he was a
teenager and is on a temporary assignment working with the refugees at the
base. "So, it's very traumatic. It's very hard for them."
Rahel said he can appreciate the challenges the new arrivals will face since
his own parents confronted similar ones, including being forced to take
lower-level jobs than they were accustomed to back in Afghanistan so they could
support their family and the kids could go to school.
He also can understand why so many of the refugees want to move to areas
where there are established Afghan communities --- particularly Northern
California, the Washington, D.C., area and Houston --- even though those
requests are straining resettlement efforts there and contributing to the
Given the extent of the challenge, the agencies have enlisted help beyond
groups that typically work with refugees, including veterans groups and even
local sports clubs to sponsor families to help them get situated. Resettlement
officials say it might have been easier if the entire process had been shifted
to a U.S. territory such as Guam, which has been used for that purpose in the
past, or if there had been more time to prepare in advance for their arrival.
"This thing should have been planned before they announced the withdrawal.
Right? So in that sense, it is taking longer than it should," Mark Hetfield,
president of HIAS, another of the nine resettlement organizations, said. "But
considering they decided to plan for this after they made the decision to
withdraw, given that the depletion of the capacity of the U.S. refugee program
over the last four years, none of this is surprising."
While refugees receive temporary assistance after being resettled, most are
expected to achieve self-sufficiency. That proves to be difficult when many
don't speak English well, have academic credentials that won't be recognized in
the U.S. and lack the job and credit history needed.
Saber said he hopes his experience as a military interpreter will allow him
to join the Army. He recently learned that he would be getting resettled in
Phoenix but has no idea when he'll leave. "I'm just waiting for a flight."