Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Thousands of Afghans wait at US bases after frantic evacuation

JOINT BASE MCGUIR DIX LAKHURST, NJ (AP) – The former US Army translator considers himself one of the lucky ones to have an Afghan man overcome the violent crowds outside Kabul airport to board a military evacuation flight out of the country. with little more than clothes on the back.

Esrar Ahmad Saber is now waiting with 11,000 other Afghans from the security of a US base in downtown New Jersey, worrying about family members being left behind and going through a lengthy resettlement process.

Saber has been at the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst joint base in downtown New Jersey since August 26, like nearly everyone else in one of three “villages” set up there for refugees. “They want to move into their new homes and start a new life,” said the 29-year-old. “They really love it. But in reality, the process is going very slowly. “

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The slow pace was a defining characteristic of Operation Allies Welcome, the largest refugee resettlement operation in the United States in decades, following the August 30 withdrawal and the end of America’s longest war. Even as Afghans still arrive, thousands of people remain in limbo, worried about their future as they watch with fear the news of Taliban repression and economic collapse in their homeland.

Operation Allies Welcome reached a milestone this week, with 37,000 displaced persons in American communities surpassing 35,000 at six bases nationwide. But the people involved in these efforts readily admit that this has been a problem for a number of reasons, including a shortage of affordable housing, cutbacks in refugee programs under President Donald Trump, and huge numbers of refugees.

“It was a shock to the system because we just didn’t have that many people arriving at the same time in a really very long period,” said Erol Kekic, senior vice president of Church World Service, one of nine ethnic settlers. agencies working with the government in the so-called Operation Allies Welcome.

Resettlement organizations and the Department of Homeland Security, the lead federal agency in the effort, are working to get everyone out of bases by February 15. The New Jersey site now has the largest number, up from 14,500, followed by Fort McCoy in Wisconsin at 7,500.

Another 3,200 people at overseas transit points await flights to the United States, and some are still flying out of Afghanistan.

“I am very pleased with our chances of transferring everyone from the base until this day,” Kekic said. “I think it remains to be seen if we will get to February 15th.”

READ MORE: Historical chronology of Afghanistan

Last week, the government took journalists on a tour of a facility in New Jersey, where refugees are staying in brick buildings formerly used as barracks or in extensive prefabricated structures that look like tents.

There are soccer fields, basketball courts and huge warehouses where refugees receive clothing and other supplies. There are also classes for children, which make up about 40% of the population, as well as language and occupational training for adults and a medical clinic.

Afghans at the base undergo immigration control, as well as medical examinations and vaccinations, including for COVID-19. More than 100 babies were born to women at the base.

Saber, who came from Afghanistan alone and left behind a brother and sister, says the refugees are happy and just want to move on. “It’s a dream to be here,” he said. “They just want to leave as soon as possible.”

There are also newcomers among the refugees. Microbiologist Ghulam Eshan Sharifi arrived on November 14 with his wife and two children after 23 days in Qatar. He was relieved but worried about his grown daughters in Kabul, who worked in the government before the Taliban returned.

“They don’t have a job right now. They cannot even go out, so we are clearly afraid of what will happen to them, ”Sharifi said. “We hope God will solve the problem.”

He said he hopes to settle in the Denver area, but does not yet know when it will happen or if it will. “This is just the beginning for us,” he added.

Many refugees are also recovering from what was a painful escape for many from a country that collapsed much faster than the US government, at least publicly, expected.

“Most, if not all of them worked with our forces, and they somehow participated in the US efforts,” said Air Force Colonel Suleiman Rachel, who came to the US with his family as a refugee from Afghanistan when he was a teenager and temporarily worked with refugees at the base. “So it’s very traumatic. It’s very hard for them. “

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Rachel said he can appreciate the challenges that newcomers will face as his own parents faced similar challenges, including being forced to work at a lower level than they were used to in Afghanistan so that they can support their family and their children can go to school. …

He can also understand why so many refugees want to relocate to areas where there are strong Afghan communities, especially the Northern California, Washington DC, District and Houston, even though these requests are hampering resettlement efforts there and contributing to delays. …

“This is natural because our culture always gravitates towards people who can help you,” said Rachel. “But we try to comfort them that wherever they go, American society is so indulgent and sympathetic that people will be there to help them.”

Given the magnitude of the problem, the agencies have enlisted the support of more than just groups that typically work with refugees, including veteran groups and even local sports clubs, to sponsor families to help them get settled. Resettlement officials say it would be easier if the entire process was moved to US territory such as Guam, which was used for this purpose in the past, or if there was more time to prepare for their arrival.

“This had to be planned before the withdrawal of troops was announced. Right? So in that sense, it takes longer than it should, ”said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, another of nine resettlement organizations. “But given that they decided to plan this after they made the decision to withdraw, given the depletion of the US refugee program over the past four years, none of this is surprising.”

Although refugees receive temporary assistance after resettlement, most are expected to become self-sufficient. This proves difficult when many speak poor English, have academic knowledge that is not recognized in the US, and lack the required job and credit history.

Saber said he hopes his experience as a military translator will allow him to join the army. He recently learned that he will be resettled to Phoenix, but does not know when he will leave. “I’m just waiting for the flight.”


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