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Why thousands of Afghans are still on US military bases

The US evacuated thousands from Afghanistan. Now, they are waiting for what comes next.

US military police walk past Afghan refugees at the Fort McCoy Army base in Wisconsin on September 30. It’s one of eight military installations across the country temporarily housing tens of thousands of Afghans.
Barbara Davidson/AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

One set of clothes took Enayatullah Sadat from Nimroz province, in the southwest of Afghanistan, to Fort Pickett, a United States military base in Blackstone, Virginia.

He wore the outfit in Nimroz, after he delivered the last drips of intel to the Afghan Air Force on the Taliban’s position. He wore it as he drove toward Kabul on roads blasted by IEDs. He wore the outfit for the five days it took him to fight his way inside the Hamid Karzai International Airport. He wore it on his flight to Qatar, and then started to feel shy about the way he might smell on another crowded flight to Washington, DC. He wore it when he waited for hours in line for his first meal at Fort Pickett. Another day, about 15 in total, in the same clothes: a perahan tunban, traditional Afghan clothes consisting of a long dress shirt and trousers, and reddish sandals, gray foam leaking from the heel.

“That’s too hard for a person,” he said, a little more than a month after his evacuation. “If you take everything from him in a few minutes, if a person worked for eight years or six years, gets everything for his family, and you leave it behind, and you just come out by one pair of clothes, that’s hard. That’s really hard.”

Sadat, a former linguist for the US and British governments, is one of about 53,500 Afghan evacuees staying at eight US military installations across the country. About half of them are children. Some have been there for weeks, and many may be there for weeks more. More people are still arriving, including about 3,000 currently living on bases overseas in Europe and the Middle East, according to recent data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Afghan refugees walk through a camp at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey, on September 27. At the time, the camp housed approximately 9,400 Afghan refugees, with a capacity to hold up to 13,000.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Thousands are still navigating this limbo without a clear end date, living in barracks or outfitted tents, awaiting the resettlement process. They’ve completed the required screenings to be paroled into the US, but it is taking time to connect evacuees to resettlement services. Specifically, the benefits that come with it, things like money for travel and living expenses, and other supports, like job and language training.

Signs are posted to help direct Afghan refugees where to go inside a refugee camp on Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, N.J., Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP

An operation as big and as fast as the Afghanistan evacuation meant these bases had to adjust rapidly. That has meant adapting to serve more Afghan foods — more curried meat and yogurt, for example — and to procure essentials like diapers for children. Outside organizations and donations fill the gaps, but the need is huge: Groups are trying to help clothe the equivalent of small cities, or provide counseling services to people who escaped the traumas of war. It is a temporary situation that, after more than a month for some, has taken on an uncomfortable permanence.

There are roughly 7,200 evacuees living at Fort Pickett, in Virginia, where Sadat arrived on August 31 with his wife and their 5-year-old and 8-month-old children. When he first arrived, Sadat’s family waited three hours for breakfast. In early October, they took trips to the medical services because his kids had a bad cough. He is studying for his truck driver’s license, and Sadat talks to, and worries over, his family still in Afghanistan. He had to explain to his 5-year-old son why they are here, and why they can’t leave, and why he can’t see his grandfather in person.

A senior administration official working with Operation Allies Welcome and Afghan resettlement told Vox last week that the number of evacuees leaving bases has increased in recent weeks. But there are thousands still caught in an in-between place, out of Afghanistan but not yet fully in the United States.

The Afghan evacuation in August was a shock to the US immigration and resettlement system, a collection of federal programs and nonprofit organizations that had already been upended by the Trump administration.

Afghan evacuees are in this holding pattern for several reasons. There are the screenings and immigration procedures that have to play out, and when they do, they are met with a now hollowed-out US resettlement infrastructure that’s struggling to keep up. All of this is happening for thousands of Afghans all at once.

US Marines and Norwegian coalition forces admit evacuees through an evacuation control checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 20.
Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP

The fall of the Afghan government happened more quickly than President Joe Biden’s administration anticipated, leading to more than 124,000 people being airlifted out of Afghanistan by August 30. This meant the thing immigrant advocates and some lawmakers feared would happen happened. Evacuations of Afghan allies and at-risk Afghans that should have been expedited months earlier were condensed into two chaotic weeks.

The backlog of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), the designation given to those who assisted the US government, added to the pressure. There were delays for years. President Donald Trump’s administration slow-rolled the program. Pandemic closures added to the logjam. Congress and the Biden administration tried to ramp up the process, but those efforts to accelerate vetting fell short.

Typically, when people come as SIVs or refugees to the United States, they’ve already been screened. That happened for a few thousand SIVs who left Afghanistan this summer and quickly moved on to final destinations in the US. But the evacuation otherwise scrambled that process for those who were still in the SIV application process or who were applying (or eligible) for other types of priority programs.

Instead, evacuees went through background and security vetting immediately after leaving Kabul. They had to go through medical screenings (including for Covid-19), and a measles outbreak prompted a vaccination campaign that required officials to quarantine everyone for 21 days. Evacuees must also await work authorization and interviews for the resettlement process. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said DHS has “nearly completed” the work authorization adjudication process “for Afghans who have been paroled into the US and are awaiting relocation.”

Among those still awaiting relocation are Humaira Rasuli, a human rights lawyer. She has been at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin since August 21, one of about 12,000 evacuees at the base.

Rasuli says she doesn’t have any answers for when they might be resettled. “The process of how much time it will take to sort out our case, whether we will be able to leave the camp without losing some benefits, that process is unclear,” she said.

Some of that uncertainty is tied to current challenges with the resettlement system. Trump slashed refugee caps but curtailed admissions even lower than those ceilings, in part by deliberately jamming up the process. With so few refugees coming into the US — and so little government funding because of that — more than 100 local resettlement offices closed during the Trump administration. Many had built relationships with local partners such as landlords, employers, and churches, which would help in the resettlement process. Those relationships have languished. “And so what we have is, very quickly, the arrival of tens upon tens of thousands of Afghans, and a decimated network needing to help them,” said Jennifer Quigley, the senior director of government affairs at Human Rights First.

That strained resettlement system is compounded by existing problems, like the shortage of affordable housing. It is hard to find a home, harder still to find a landlord willing to rent to a family without any credit history.

The resettlement process isn’t one-size-fits-all, either. Each arrival has different needs and different skills, and may already have connections in certain communities. “That is when the speed and flow of arrivals presents the challenge for some of the traditional ways that we’ve done resettlement. Normally, we have lead time for new arrivals,” said Nazanin Ash, the CEO of Welcome.US, a nonprofit coalition helping to coordinate private sector support and donations for Operation Allies Welcome.

Afghan refugees stand outside housing where they are temporarily living at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, on September 30.
Barbara Davidson/AP

Congress passed a $6.3 billion aid package in the recent spending bill to assist in Afghan refugee resettlement. Advocates and officials say that money has expanded the capacity of these resettlement agencies, along with providing all Afghan evacuees benefits and services for up to a year. The funding had bipartisan support, though some conservative Republicans have tried to put limits on aid — which, if not successful this time, revealed the simmering anti-immigration backlash over these arrivals. Those politics could complicate resettlement efforts, especially when it comes to finding a permanent solution for Afghan refugees. The parole process that many Afghan evacuees were granted is not permanent, and, as it stands now, many may have to go through the asylum process, a system already woefully backlogged and broken.

Officials say the completion of screening processes and increased federal funding for resettlement is helping to move people off these bases at a much faster clip in recent weeks. According to the Department of Homeland Security, since August 17, more than 13,000 Afghans, American citizens, and legal permanent residents have left these military bases, nearly 10,000 of whom were resettled in new communities by agencies.

Still, Rasuli and many others are still waiting. Sadat, the linguist, wants to get his family to Colorado. A friend he grew up with in Afghanistan is headed there, and he wants to be near someone he trusts. His old army colleagues have set up a GoFundMe to try to help him start his new life. It has raised a little more than $2,300.

In the rush to get out of Afghanistan, people took what they could in a backpack or duffle, and left the rest behind. That meant houses and apartments they could not sell back in Afghanistan, money in a bank they could not access. The $800 or so Sadat brought with him from Afghanistan is now gone. His friend sent him a care package of basics like socks, cold medicine, and a bottle for the baby. It included new sandals for Sadat, to replace his torn-up ones.

The needs at the military bases were, and in a lot of ways still are, enormous.

“Part of the issue with what we’re experiencing right now is that it happened so quickly, that they were not prepared to meet all of the humanitarian needs of the population,” Quigley, of Human Rights First, said. Operation Allies Welcome is a multi-agency effort, with different parts of government covering different elements of the operation, and that patchwork meant some things fell through the cracks. “For instance, baby bottles,” Quigley added. “You’ve got women who are in the third trimester, they’re going to have newborns soon.”

A spokesperson with the Department of Defense said many of these contracts were brand new, and so it took time to make adjustments as officials more clearly understood the evacuees’ needs. The Pentagon now has contracts for diapers and formula.

The food also required some adjustments. Each base is different, but Afghans I spoke to said in the days after the arrival, there was a chaotic rush for food, with lines lasting hours. In early September, Hamed Ahmadi, who arrived at the Fort Bliss Doña Ana Complex in New Mexico on August 27, tweeted a picture of his meal there: two skinny pieces of meat and a few chunks of fruit.

Ahmadi’s viral food tweet got him noticed online by right-wing trolls, but also by base officials, who reached out to him and asked him about the food situation, and asked if he might be willing to help them collect feedback from those staying at the base.

Ahmadi formed a team of eight volunteers who went around his part of the camp — the whole base is currently hosting about 8,600 people — and asked people what they needed. “We are a bridge between the officials here and the Afghans,” he said. The food improved at Fort Bliss, Ahmadi said, with more things Afghans liked. That feedback loop existed across the different bases, too; again, an adjustment process that also involved contracting for different foods. More rice instead of potatoes, hard-boiled eggs instead of scrambled.

Afghan refugees pick out clothes at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, on September 27.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Ahmadi said recently, as the weather was getting colder, he and the volunteers were trying to get warmer clothes for the residents. Sikandar Khan and his organization, Global Emergency Response and Assistance, are helping at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey, where about 10,900 evacuees are staying. He said they try to make sure people there have enough of the basics — shoes, clothes, blankets, jackets. Recently, his group dropped off a shipment of 50,000 hoodies.

Imam Ammar Amonette, who leads the Islamic Center of Virginia, said his congregation helped donate electric tea kettles to Afghans at bases in Virginia. Judy Deiwert volunteers with Team Rubicon at Camp Atterbury, in Indiana, where she sorted through donations. “It’s a never-ending job,” she said. They have to go through everything to make sure it’s in good condition and culturally appropriate. She recalled that the base received a shipment of crop tops and ripped jeans; Deiwert said it all went to Goodwill instead.

This reliance on outside support, officials and experts said, isn’t really that unusual. “Refugee resettlement has always been a public-private partnership,” Ash, of Welcome.US, said.

Still, evacuees told me it can sometimes be hard to get supplies. The exchanges on the base can be pricey if you need something in a pinch. Some people are a bit better off, or have friends or family in the US that can send them supplies. Rasuli said you can see the divide; she is one of the lucky ones with an electric tea kettle, and so she lets others borrow hers for a few hours a night.

Lori Joundi, who also volunteers at Camp Atterbury, told me everyone — volunteers, officials and staff on the bases — is working so hard. She is helping to raise donations, and said many from the Muslim community in the area, and beyond, are helping however they can. “There’s been a lot of support, it’s just that because of the number of people and the enormity of all of their needs — I don’t want to call it a scarcity problem. But you’re basically taking care of an entire city, right? 6,000 is a small town.”

Ahmadi told me the Afghans at Fort Bliss had this joke that they are all still in Afghanistan. From the base, this part of the country looks and feels a lot like Afghanistan — the mountains, the desert, the weather. It didn’t feel as if they’d reached the United States yet.

That sense of suspension is hard to shake. The wait for more information about their statuses permeates everything; maybe today, or this week, we’ll get a call.

Tents housing Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Village in New Mexico are shown on September 10.
David Goldman/AP

In the meantime, they keep busy. Rasuli, the human rights lawyer, works all the time — calls, meetings, interviews. Her current organization, Women for Justice Afghanistan, is working with Islamic and sharia law scholars to counter the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam when it comes to education and women’s rights. Her 15-year-old son jokes that if she ever does get free time, she’ll never know how to spend it.

The military bases are helping to provide services on base: school and art classes for kids, job training, cultural sensitivity training, and language classes for adults. Amonette helped coordinate with the base chaplains to host Friday prayers. Last month, Khan helped host a barbecue: 6,000 pounds of meat and chicken, kebabs for 10,000.

Afghan refugees take a class at Fort McCoy on September 30.
Barbara Davidson/AP

Still, day to day, it all gets pretty boring. You can go for walks, and read, and write, and watch Netflix if you have a computer. You can talk to your family at home, although that is a reminder of all the things that brought you here.

Abdul Basit Amal, a doctor who arrived at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and his wife, Khadija Wazeen, who is also a doctor, tried to volunteer as interpreters in the medical clinic on the base. They couldn’t treat patients, but they wanted to be useful. They helped for a couple of days, until they were told they couldn’t work for free and would need work authorization. Basit Amal said officials helped expedite the forms, but by then, the clinic had all the translators they needed.

Wazeen says the hardest part of her journey happened at the eye doctor. She can’t see distance, and brought two pairs of her glasses from Afghanistan. She lost one pair, the other broke. The clinic at the military base first gave her tape, but about a week later, she learned she had an appointment with an optician off the base. She and her husband, escorted by a soldier, went to an eye doctor in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The cheapest frames were $25. They didn’t have the money. Another customer overheard and offered to buy them. When the women went to pay, Wazeen cried. “‘I was like, ‘I don’t want this. I can wait.’ But she said, ‘You know, we’re helping each other one way or the other.’”

Wazeen has the black-framed glasses. “One day you’re something,” she said, “and the other day you’re someone else.”

A soldier puts her arms around two female Afghan refugees as they walk through an Afghan refugee camp at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, New Jersey, on September 27.
Andrew Harnik/AP

These are the kind of negotiations you do after you’ve been cleaved from your career and your family and your country in a matter of days. “You’re a doctor, you’re a professional person, you’re an educated person,” Basit Amal said. “You know everything about your field and your work, and you have years [of] experience, and now you just leave everything you’ve ever known and you just start your life from zero, from scratch.”

Ahmadi, at Fort Bliss, blogged and worked in peace-building in Afghanistan. He was applying for a Fulbright scholarship. “I didn’t want to come like this,” he said. “I wanted to come as a student, and study in a very prestigious school in the United States, and then I’d graduate, go back to Afghanistan to work.”

When he tweeted about the food in Fort Bliss, he was accused of being “ungrateful,” in right-wing media. He is grateful, he said, but you have to understand what it feels like when you’re having to start your life from zero. “I wanted to come in the way that I wanted to come,” he said.

Going back to Afghanistan is impossible, at least for now, and so the only thing to focus on is this uncertain future in America. Officials, again, said that the pace of resettlement is increasing, and Afghans I have spoken to have left bases in the past few weeks. Even as people leave, more evacuees are still arriving from overseas. These military bases may be a landing pad for Afghan evacuees well into 2022.

Ahmadi left Fort Bliss after more than 40 days on the base, arriving two weeks ago in Silver Spring, Maryland. Basit Amal and Wazeen left Holloman after 45 days. They are staying with a friend in Apex, North Carolina, as they await placement in permanent housing. It was, Basit Amal said, the first time they slept well in three months.

Update, October 28, 12:30 pm: This story has been updated with the most recent figures from the Department of Homeland Security.


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