Thousands of Afghans evacuated during US withdrawal awaiting resettlement
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — The U.S. government calls the 50-acre sprawl of tents on this desert Air Force base a "village." The 4,300 Afghans temporarily housed here are the government's "guests." And the landscape of tents and trailers is called Aman Omid, which in Persian means "peace and hope" — the feelings U.S. officials say they are trying to foster here.
More than two months after the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the federal government is still in the process of resettling roughly 45,000 Afghans housed in temporary camps on U.S. military bases after they were airlifted from their home country.
Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico is among eight facilities that became hubs for one of the largest humanitarian resettlement operations in U.S. history. Biden administration officials say about 73,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Holloman received 7,100, half of them children, between late August and early October. They include Afghans who risked their lives to aid the U.S. government during its two-decade war effort in their country, officials say. Others are relatives of those who served or of U.S. citizens, as well as many others who felt at risk in Taliban-held Afghanistan.
"We are this generation's Ellis Island," Curtis Velasquez, the Air Force colonel who serves as the village "governor," told reporters on a recent tour of the base. Reporters were shown an adult English class in progress, an impromptu cricket game and a cavernous dining hall that serves halal meals labeled in English, Dari and Pashto.
"We take pride in what we are doing here for our Afghan guests," Velasquez said. He described the camp as "a safe haven where they can transition from that survival mode to a thriving mode."
But the long-term fates of many Afghan evacuees are uncertain. While officials say all of the Afghans have been heavily vetted, most will start new lives in the United States as short-term "humanitarian parolees," without an immediate path to permanent residency or the full host of benefits and services offered to refugees. To stay in the United States permanently, many — including those who served the U.S. mission — will need to navigate a severely backlogged visa and immigration system.
More ominous, Afghans and their advocates say, are the fates of the tens of thousands of others who were left behind.
‘The U.S. has a legal and moral obligation to take action’
As the name Aman Omid suggests, the official rhetoric at Holloman's camp for evacuated Afghans centers on optimism, resilience and success.
The Afghans here are heroic and ambitious, say the military commanders and officials who run the camp, many of whom are themselves veterans of the war in Afghanistan.
"These Afghan guests have sacrificed much for America. I'd actually say that the majority of those in the village have risked more for American security than the vast majority of Americans have," said Daniel Gabrielli, the Air Force brigadier general who heads operations at Aman Omid.
Less often acknowledged are the circumstances that brought them here: that America's once-vanquished enemy, the Taliban, took control of the country as swiftly as the United States removed its last troops, and that American-affiliated Afghans were left acutely vulnerable and feeling betrayed. Officials also avoid dwelling on the fact that the Afghans housed here are the lucky ones — those who made it onto evacuation flights, amid panicked crowds, barricades and violence at Kabul International Airport. When Afghans ask what can be done to rescue the spouses, parents and children who didn't make it onto a plane, the American officials at Holloman say they have struggled to provide helpful answers.
The U.S. State Department says its priority now is to facilitate the resettlement of those Afghans who are here and to assist any U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents still in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration has asked Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill that would allow those paroled into the country to apply for green cards after a year, making it easier for them to become permanent residents and bring relatives left behind.
A State Department official said the government was working to evacuate some of those left behind, including parents and children separated at the airport, by "both chartering its own flights as well as working with airlines to reserve a certain number of seats on already-existing flights." The official, who declined to confirm the effort on the record, did not say how Afghans who fear persecution from the Taliban might access a Taliban-controlled airport. But the official pointed to Qatar as the administration's new formal go-between, per a memorandum signed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month.
"I've not met one person who does not have family back there," said Gabrielli.
"When the guests want to talk about their family back home, I encourage Airmen here to take the time to listen," he added later in an email. "I will take unlimited time to hear their stories, and feel it builds trust and is cathartic for them as well."
Those left behind include Rahatullah Doust's wife and children. The 29-year-old former employee of the United Nations Development Program said his family tried to get into the Kabul airport multiple times, amid a frantic, surging crowd and Taliban sentries who beat people back, before deciding it was too dangerous to try again with a toddler and an infant.
"My daughter is very small — she wasn't even 1-year-old — and I didn't want to lose her. So I decided that, OK, I'll go alone," said Doust, who is now alone at Holloman. It is unclear how or when he'll be able to bring his family to the United States. "I miss them," he said, his eyes welling.
A 21-year-old at the camp, who gave her name only as Bibi, described her family's own battle to reach an evacuation flight. Her father, a prominent Afghan businessman, didn't make it.
"The Taliban was hitting everybody and they were attacking us. They hit my brother, my mom, my aunt," she said. "My dad got separated in the airport." He's now in hiding "because the Taliban are searching for him," she added.
‘Daily desperate pleas for help’
In Washington, the Biden administration has walked a fine line in its attempts to persuade Americans to welcome tens of thousands of Afghans into their communities — emphasizing their valor and hard work — while also seeking to defend or deflect attention from the many thousands it did not evacuate.
Advocates for Afghans, including attorneys and veterans groups, estimate that there are potentially tens of thousands still in Afghanistan who are at risk because of their or their relatives' affiliation with the U.S. occupation, and they want the Biden administration to do more.
"The U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan may have ended in August but the U.S. government's obligation did not," Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), told reporters on a recent call, in which advocates lamented the Biden administration's inaction.
"The U.S. has a legal and moral obligation to take action, and vulnerable Afghans cannot afford to wait longer," Varghese said.
Rick Burns, who founded a nonprofit to assist Afghans and Iraqis and remains in touch with many, said, "We are receiving daily desperate pleas for help."
"It is heart-wrenching and it is terribly difficult to have these conversations with people who you feel very personal relationships with and yet are in such horrible danger and such desperate situations in Afghanistan," said Burns, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At Holloman's Aman Omid Village, officials avoid offering predictions on how quickly the Afghan families here will be able to leave and start over with apartments in new cities and short-term assistance from local resettlement agencies.
A couple thousand have already left. But the task force is authorized to run through March, meaning some of the thousands waiting for resettlement might still be here six months after their arrival — a product, officials and advocates say, of a national resettlement system that was largely dismantled by former president Donald Trump and still is not fully equipped.
In-demand resettlement destinations such as California, Virginia and Texas — where there are already large Afghan diaspora communities — are "saturated," officials say; the resettlement groups simply can't accommodate the numbers of Afghans who want to go there.
A screen mounted to the wall in the tent where State Department officials help Afghans navigate their resettlement cases advertises in a rotating slide show less-conventional options — places like Birmingham, Ala., and Chattanooga, Tenn. — that might be able to take them sooner.
In the meantime, camp infrastructure is steadily evolving to ease the long wait. The camp now has WiFi towers and indoor heating. The generators will soon be replaced with standard electricity.
There are communal TVs that play international cricket matches and Bollywood movies; English and cultural orientation classes; toys and art supplies for the children; and abundant dispensers of hot tea. Last week, the residents received winter coats and long underwear to prepare them for the months ahead. All of the adults are now vaccinated against the coronavirus, officials say.
As airmen move through the camp each day, children flock to them: to hang on their arms like a jungle gym, toss them soccer balls and try out newly acquired English phrases.
Some of the adults have noted that, with its cloudless blue sky, humming generators and horizon of arid mountains, the pale, gravelly landscape of Aman Omid's tents and trailers bears a resemblance to Bagram Airfield - the former headquarters of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. It was a base where many U.S. service members, diplomats and Afghans alike once worked, but has since been abandoned to the Taliban.
Gabrielli told reporters during the tour that being able to serve Afghans who helped the United States is deeply fulfilling for many of his airmen, particularly those who served, who may find "closure" in their participation here.
Asked whether there is much discussion of America's Afghanistan legacy among airmen and others at the camp, Gabrielli said in an email that it has "personally been a humbling experience for me" to hear from Afghans about the military units they served with, as well as "listening to their stories and looking at the photos of them with American Generals and other leaders."
He added: "I also encourage Airmen to keep in mind that while guests are happy and grateful for the opportunity to have a safe, new place to make their home, many are still grieving over the circumstances that brought them here."