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

Sana Khairi, an 18-year-old Afghan with wide brown eyes, knew precisely how long she had been living in a temporary encampment on a New Jersey military base: 47 days.

>> Tracey TullyThe New York Times
Published : 4 Dec 2021, 09:47 AM
Updated : 4 Dec 2021, 09:47 AM

After fleeing Afghanistan as the Taliban seized power, she and her mother and four siblings were routed through Germany before arriving at what has become known as Liberty Village, a community that swelled nearly overnight to hold a population larger than half the towns in New Jersey.

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

It is the only location still accepting new Afghan arrivals from overseas, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It is likely to be among the last sites to shut down, based on its housing capacity and proximity to Philadelphia, the main US port of entry for the new arrivals, officials said Thursday as they offered the first media tour of the encampment.

As many as four planeloads of Afghans continue to arrive in New Jersey each week from overseas safe havens where 3,300 people are waiting their turn to enter the United States as part of the largest evacuation of war refugees since Vietnam.

Roughly 37,000 of the approximately 73,000 non-US citizens evacuated from Afghanistan are still waiting to be resettled in cities and towns across the country by refugee agencies struggling with a shortage of affordable housing and the sheer magnitude of the operation.

“One of the biggest challenges is the pace of arrivals,” said Avigail Ziv, executive director for New York and New Jersey at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement organisation. “This is a really unprecedented situation.”

Khairi and her family have been told that they are being relocated to Buffalo, New York, a city to which they have no ties, but where she hopes to enroll in college and eventually study medicine.

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

“There is so much worry because of the winter there,” Khairi said through an interpreter. “Already there’s no jobs, there is no money. So how can they survive?”

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

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

But boredom is nearly as palpable as hope on the base. There is also fear.

The No. 1 question new arrivals ask is about family left behind.

“How do I get them out of Afghanistan?” Capt. Ron Miller of the US Space Force, a Pashto speaker who leads a team responsible for acclimating newcomers, said of the common concern. “How do I keep them safe?”

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

An expansive medical area includes a pharmacy, pediatric and dental care, X-ray machines and a lab.

In 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, talking. Some were dressed in traditional Afghan tunics, patterned scarves and sandals; others wore Nike sneakers and puffer jackets. Women pushed strollers near a playground and one of several dining halls. Children were everywhere.

Some theft and minor assaults have been reported, homeland security officials said, but no felony crimes. More than 100 English-language classes are offered each week. Academic courses for the 3,000 children living on the base are planned, but there is no firm starting date.

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

Some have even made the difficult decision to walk off the base on their own, unaided by a resettlement agency — a permitted but discouraged choice that is known as an “independent departure.”

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

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

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

“For people who have small children, it’s very difficult,” said Silen Hussainzada, a 25-year-old woman at the military base who evacuated from Kabul in late summer and is fluent in English. “There are some activities for them, but there are not many.”

Hussainzada, who arrived in the country alone and has become a volunteer language teacher and a fierce advocate for women, said it was growing more common for people to choose to leave without the immediate support of a resettlement agency.

She expects an agency to help her settle in Dayton, Ohio, where she plans to continue studying law.

Like Hussainzada, a vast majority of the evacuees who arrive in the United States will be placed in communities by one of nine national refugee agencies, which work with hundreds of smaller community organisations. Eight in 10 of the 35,000 Afghans already in new communities got there with help from a resettlement agency, said Angelo Fernandez, a homeland security spokesperson.

Everyone who leaves the base must have satisfied rigorous security checks and be fully vaccinated. Many who chose to leave on their own have family already living in the United States or close friends who arranged lodging.

Katy Swartz, who helps lead the effort for the State Department, was on the New Jersey base when the first Afghans arrived and said she often watched as families boarded buses to leave. “It’s incredibly emotional,” she said.

She acknowledged that some evacuees might be disappointed with their new assigned hometowns or might be impatient to leave.

“But as people have departed on their own,” she said, “I think some messages have come back, ‘This is really hard.’ ”

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-NJ, toured Liberty Village Tuesday.

“I’m so hopeful for these evacuees — many of whom saved lives of American servicemen and women,” said Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot.

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

“I do want to continue to make sure that if they’re going to be there for any length of time that we make sure the children can start to get into K-12 education and become familiar with our American system,” Sherrill said.

The operation, “Allies Welcome,” is overseen by a host of federal agencies and thousands of US troops. Its ultimate end date is largely dependent on how quickly the refugee agencies can complete the resettlement effort.

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

And they continue to make improvements at the base, some of which appeared designed for the long term.

About 300,000 tons of construction gravel have been laid on a previously open field to create roadways that make it easier to push strollers, and eliminate the mud common after rain. An initial overwhelming but scattershot stream of donations has been tailored to each base's specific needs using an Amazon wish list. The housing tents were reinforced with vinyl-like siding to keep the heat in during winter. All meal preparation is now done on site.

As Khairi dreams of becoming a doctor, she creates art — including a poem and paintings displayed at the base for visitors. She said she was immensely grateful for the opportunity to pursue her ambitions freely in the United States.

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

“I have more dreams to accomplish,” she said, “and I’m worried about those girls’ dreams.”

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