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Afghan women and children learn English words in a morning at class at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Sept. 28, 2021.
Afghan women and children learn English words in a morning at class at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Sept. 28, 2021. (Zubair Babakarkhail/Stars and Stripes)

FORT MCCOY, Wis. — When Parwana needed diapers for her sons, she went to the Red Cross station at Fort McCoy in search of help.

But the 25-year-old Afghan evacuee, who arrived days after a chaotic escape from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, couldn’t speak English. She had to pantomime with her hands to explain what she needed.

These days, Parwana is taking English classes for two hours a day with other Afghan women at Fort McCoy.

“Now I can talk a little,” she said, adding that her husband is taking classes as well.

Like many of the approximately 50,000 evacuees at eight bases across America, she does not know when she’ll be allowed to start her new life. But while Parwana is waiting, she has been spending her time trying to improve her prospects.

Afghan women and children learn English at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Sept. 28, 2021. The base has about 13,000 evacuees living in barracks while they await resettlement in the United States.
Afghan women and children learn English at Fort McCoy, Wis., on Sept. 28, 2021. The base has about 13,000 evacuees living in barracks while they await resettlement in the United States. (Zubair Babakarkhail/Stars and Stripes)
English classes for Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., are among the pastimes available in the lengthy period before the evacuees are resettled in September 2021.
English classes for Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., are among the pastimes available in the lengthy period before the evacuees are resettled in September 2021. (Zubair Babakarkhail/Stars and Stripes)
English classes are being taught to Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., which in September 2021, is housing about 13,000 refugees who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
English classes are being taught to Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis., which in September 2021, is housing about 13,000 refugees who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. (Zubair Babakarkhail/Stars and Stripes)

The women seem to be more interested in learning English than the men, said Sabira Madadi, an evacuee who volunteered to translate in class for the American teacher.

“Here, in a refugee camp, the women are trying to learn more, raise their voice and be equal to the men in this community,” she said.

Nilofar, who worked as a police officer before fleeing Kabul, said that so far she’s learned the names of different foods as well as how to greet people and how to introduce herself.

“We should learn the language, because I will be like a mute if I go out of this base and don’t know how to speak basic English,” she said in Dari.

The slightly fewer than 13,000 evacuees now at Fort McCoy will stay there until they complete a long list of tasks, including getting vaccinations and receiving paperwork allowing them to work.

After completing their administrative tasks, evacuees are to be matched with resettlement agencies and sponsors to help them transition to life in America.

Besides the opportunities to learn English, refugees can avail themselves of other ways to endure the drawn-out wait at Fort McCoy.

Afghan children play in a stream at Fort McCoy, Wis., Sept. 28, 2021.
Afghan children play in a stream at Fort McCoy, Wis., Sept. 28, 2021. (Zubair Babakarkhail/Stars and Stripes)

The vast base has plenty of room for long walks, said Hashima Shaheer, who escaped with her sister.

Other Afghans at the base pass the time playing soccer and cricket and flying kites. Sometimes there are movie nights, and a sewing center is opening to allow evacuees to make clothing, said Zach Mott, a spokesman for Task Force McCoy.

American soldiers at the base sometimes play with the children, giving them piggyback rides. And there are internet hot spots where people can contact their loved ones.

While most Afghans described overall positive experiences, there have been problems. Two Afghan men were recently arrested at the base, with one charged with sex crimes against a minor, and the other with assaulting his wife, the Justice Department said.

Fort McCoy also had one of the six cases of measles among evacuees, a Wisconsin Public Radio report said Monday. 

Some evacuees at the base said they’ve had to wear the same clothes every day for weeks, due to their luggage getting lost on the journey from their previous location at a base in Germany to America. 

Deliveries of lost luggage have already begun, and the U.S. government set up a website to help people find their bags, said Cheryl Phillips, director of public affairs at Task Force McCoy. 

Afghan evacuees gather to talk Sept. 24, 2021, as the sun sets over Fort McCoy, Wis., where they are waiting to be resettled.
Afghan evacuees gather to talk Sept. 24, 2021, as the sun sets over Fort McCoy, Wis., where they are waiting to be resettled. (Zubair Babakarkhail/Stars and Stripes)

A large number of Afghan refugees will soon leave Fort McCoy, a federal official, Skye Justice, told The Associated Press last week.

But some Afghans said they were less certain. After three weeks at the base, Mohammad Rahim said he hasn’t had any of the interviews he needs.

Still, waiting at a safe base in America is better than living under fear of the Taliban, said Rahim, who said he worked with the Americans for 11 years.

“No worries if the wait is longer,” Rahim said. “Comparing life now with those three days I lived under the Taliban, it’s like those three days were three years, and these three weeks that I have been here were like three hours.”

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J.p. Lawrence reports on the U.S. military in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He served in the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2017. He graduated from Columbia Journalism School and Bard College and is a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines.
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