Thousands of Afghan refugees still living in temporary housing on Virginia military bases
Afghan men walk past a barracks at Fort Pickett on December 16, 2021 in Blackstone, Virginia. Fort Pickett normally operates as an Army National Guard maneuver training center, but converted its capabilities to house up to 10,000 Afghan refugees. Approximately 5,500 refugees have been resettled in permanent housing, and the camp is beginning the process of being descoped as Operation Allies Welcome comes to a close. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
More than 5,000 evacuees from Afghanistan are still living on military bases in Virginia, as they await paperwork or housing to start their new lives in the United States.
They are among the 29,000 Afghanis who are in limbo at seven different military installations across the country, according to a count from the Department of Homeland Security on Dec. 17. Most have been there for months. And they may be in the military barracks or outfitted tents for weeks or months longer.
The transitional housing on military bases was a temporary solution for the massive influx of arrivals from Afghanistan when their government fell as U.S. forces exited the country last summer. A rush of tens of thousands of people were airlifted out of Kabul to foreign military bases and the United States.
Some already had Special Immigrant Visas, the designation for those who assisted the U.S. government, and some were in the process of applying for visas or asylum. Many others destroyed personal documents as the Taliban took over, in an effort to protect themselves or their families from attack, and fled the country with almost no personal belongings.
Working through those paperwork challenges and clearances slowed things down for some Afghans. But the major hurdle now is finding housing and placement for the sheer volume of new arrivals.
Agencies and nonprofits that usually have months of lead time to welcome small groups of refugees are now facing requests for hundreds of new arrivals all at once.
“Our usual goal is 250 refugees in a year but almost 200 came to us in a three-week period, so that was a real stretch for us,” said Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville office. “With the tight housing market, it was especially difficult.”
There is usually an orderly process for refugee resettlement. Agencies and nonprofits set up the refugees in houses and apartments and connect them to the school and community. They help them navigate the medical system, get English classes and apply for jobs. Refugees usually only get three months of federal assistance before they have to support themselves, so the partner groups are key.
But housing has been a challenge for so many people at once. IRC in Charlottesville is helping to resettle 282 Afghans, but they are almost all still in temporary housing – hotels, rooms in other people’s homes or other short-term arrangements. Charitable giving and donations from the community are helping them manage the cost of short-term housing while the group tries to identify apartments and homes.
Compounding this challenge for many nonprofits is that their work with refugees lessened in recent years, as the Trump administration set caps limiting refugee arrivals to record lows. Agencies have had to hire more staff and develop new relationships with landlords to deal with the sudden increase.
“Housing is the biggest challenge,” said Jay Brown, CEO of Commonwealth Catholic Charities, one of Virginia’s largest resettlement organizations. “To find housing for people who have good and long credit and rental history is hard enough right now. Doing that for somebody with no credit and rental history is a real challenge.”
Commonwealth Catholic Charities has helped more than 400 Afghan refugees since the beginning of October this year. Compare that to 2020, when they resettled 18 refugees in October and November.
The group has hired staff, including some people who came as refugees from Afghanistan themselves. They placed Afghan families in new homes in Richmond, Newport News and Roanoke and expect to resettle upwards of 745 Afghan arrivals total by the end of 2022.
Virginia has three of the eight military installations that have hosted Afghan arrivals: Fort Pickett near Blackstone, Fort Lee in Prince George County and Marine Corps Base Quantico. Afghan evacuees are also living at military installations in Indiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas and Wisconsin.
Fort Lee was the first base to welcome Afghan arrivals, and they all moved off base by November.
But there are still 400 Afghanis still living at “Safe Haven Quantico.” And about 4,800 Afghan guests at Fort Pickett as of Dec. 13, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Most are part of family units and 48 percent are children.
Their life on base is a transitional one. At Fort Pickett, the Afghan evacuees live in barracks, according to a spokesman for the Virginia Army National Guard. The children are not enrolled in school but groups come to host “intro to preschool classes” and lessons on English letters and numbers. Fort Pickett also has prayer tents, a soccer field, sewing machines and computer labs available for the Afghan guests.
The military has partnered with non-governmental organizations to provide classes each day in English, driving, U.S. laws and trauma education, according to a Department of Homeland Security spokesman.
More than 5,300 Afghans, American citizens and lawful permanent residents have already relocated to new communities from Fort Pickett, according to the Department of Homeland Security. At its peak in September, Fort Pickett had nearly 10,000 Afghans.
“There was great apprehension in town when it first started,” Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn said in an interview. Blackstone is a town of about 3,500, so the Afghan population on base outnumbered the town for a while.
But Coleburn said after some initial chaos and rumors, things have calmed down. There are complaints of litter and waste from the base and the occasional rude remark on social media, Coleburn said. But in large part, the Afghans who are on the base have little overlap into the town. And when they do leave the base to be resettled, they are not being placed in nearby Blackstone.
“This is no different than the big military units that come to Ft. Pickett … you really don’t know they are here,” Coleburn said.
“We are a military base, We don’t get to pick the mission.”
Military training in transition
The Afghan arrivals have shifted operations at Ft. Pickett.
The barracks and the majority of facilities that are usually used for pre-deployment activities at Fort Pickett, except for live-fire ranges and maneuver areas, are now dedicated to “Operation Allies Welcome,” according to the Virginia Army National Guard.
So in November, when 1,000 Army National Guard soldiers came for field training at Fort Pickett, they were relegated to tents – a move that Republican Congressman Bob Good called “concerning” in a letter to military leaders.
Major Gen. Timothy Williams said in a reply to Good that although the soldiers ate and slept in the field, leaders carefully planned and employed “one of the most tried and true axioms in the Army… train as you fight.” He said field training helped them prepare for the “austere environment” they would face when deployed to the Horn of Africa and that soldiers still had access to heated tents, hot showers, portable latrines and handwashing stations.
National Guard soldiers requiring traditional training facilities, rather than fieldwork, have relocated to Fort A.P. Hill or their respective home stations, according to the Virginia Army National Guard. There are no significant training events scheduled for Fort Pickett for the next month.
The Biden administration has a goal to resettle the Afghans who remain on military bases in the next few months, but officials at the military bases and with the Department of Homeland Security said evacuees will be cared for on base as long as needed.
‘The opportunity to help is a gift back to me’
Overall, Virginia expects upwards of 6,000 Afghan evacuees to resettle in the state – about half of them children, according to the Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The largest numbers of Afghan refugees will make their homes in Northern Virginia, but also in Charlottesville, Richmond and Newport News.
More than 3,200 Afghans have already been resettled in Virginia as of December 13, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
For Molly Bauch of Alexandria it’s been a chance to practice radical hospitality and open her home to three Afghan refugees.
When she heard from a friend of a friend about an Afghan refugee who worked for Army contractors for the past 15 years and was looking for a place to live, she rearranged her basement as a temporary apartment for them.
Mohammad, who does not want to use his full name for fear of retribution against his family still in Afghanistan, had visited Northern Virginia before. But when he arrived with his relatives from Fort Bliss in September, he had little else beyond the shirt on his back. With one email request, Bauch said she was inundated with clothing as strangers left donations at her door.
“The outpouring of this community has been inspiring. It fills your heart,” Bauch said in an interview.
Mohammad is driving an Uber at night, looking for a security job, and saving up to move his family into an apartment in Alexandria. In the meantime, Bauch said she is enjoying learning about Afghan music from her new houseguests, introducing them to a Ravens football game and laughing together at a failed joint baking effort.
“This is such a gift. Everybody wants to lend a hand and we can feel so helpless as humans are suffering and the guilt we’ve got in our collective conscience at leaving our partners high and dry,” Bauch said. “The opportunity to help is a gift back to me, really.”
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