Popcorn, slushies and tunes: US troops, volunteers give Afghan refugees in Germany a taste of America
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The sounds of gleefully screaming children rose from a large tent that had been transformed from a dining hall to a party venue on a fall evening on Rhine Ordnance Barracks.
A DJ spun Afghan and American tunes, a machine spewed out bubbles, disco lights threw off shafts of color, and kids lined up for fresh popcorn and slushies that didn’t quite freeze, provided by the USO.
Sgt. Michael Daniels, a lead firefighter with the 23rd Ordnance Company out of Grafenwoehr in Bavaria, who has been working with the 5,400 evacuees at ROB, roused the crowd while DJ Corey Mackey sorted out some electrical and WiFi problems.
“I do this because I love the kids and love having the opportunity to share joy with them,” Daniels said.
“I know they have been through a difficult situation and want to allow them to be kids again, having fun, dancing,” he said before marching to the far end of the tent, clapping and shouting, “Hey! Let’s go!” as a group of children followed him.
The glee at ROB contrasted sharply with the situation in Afghanistan, where in the six weeks since the Taliban returned to power, music and dancing have been severely limited.
Schools have reopened, but the future of education for girls remains uncertain. Food is so scarce the U.N. and aid agencies are warning that many Afghans could starve when winter comes, and the country’s economy is on the brink of collapse.
“Getting out of Afghanistan was very hard — Taliban were everywhere and we had to walk through a canal filled with waste — but now we have opportunities and we are with friends,” said an Afghan father who has been at ROB for a month.
Flights from overseas bases to the U.S. were temporarily halted last month after some evacuees were diagnosed with measles. They could resume over the Columbus Day weekend, Lt. Col. Will Powell, spokesman for the 86th Airlift Wing, said in a statement sent to Stars and Stripes.
As the Afghans wait to move on, they are being introduced to aspects of American life — things like popcorn, slushies and different ways of doing things, like teaching.
“In Afghanistan, some of the teaching methods are too difficult for kids,” said the Afghan father, who worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Army personnel asked that he not be identified to protect family and colleagues still in the country.
“But the way the teachers here on ROB teach is the way they teach in the States, so our kids will learn good stuff,” he said. “And American teachers are so kind. The teachers in Afghanistan, most are very good and kind but some of them beat the kids and shout at them.”
Behind him, eager children ran toward two large Army tents where classes are held. In one tent, American Red Cross volunteer Yuki Hwong was introducing the kids to puppet shows and bingo games.
“We saw that the kids really needed some play,” Hwong said. “We’re working to help them express their emotions and what they’re going through, to deal with the trauma and stress of their situation.”
After the puppet show was over, Morgan Guinn taught the children English, and Faiza Nguyen sang songs and told stories in the tent next door.
Girls sat next to boys, and sometimes outnumbered them. Military cots served as desks or seats. Whiteboards, pens and erasers were handed out at the start of Guinn’s class and collected at the end, ready for the next students.
The children mimicked Guinn’s tone and gestures as she taught them to count and write the numbers one through five. Thirteen-year-old Edris helped keep the class under control. He wants to settle in California and become a doctor, he said. Several other teenage boys at ROB said they want to join the U.S. military when they grow up.
In another part of the camp, dozens of men gathered for an English class, taught by an Afghan who had worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces. Separate classes are held for women.
The day’s lesson focused on pronouns and enriching the men’s vocabulary.
“We are students,” they chanted in unison after their teacher.
“We are refugees,” they said next, hesitating briefly, as if they didn’t fully understand the word or the situation they have found themselves in since fleeing the Taliban more than a month ago.