October 16, 2021

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A U.S. Military Base Needs to Make 13,000 Afghan Evacuees Feel at Home – The Wall Street Journal

6 min read

FORT McCOY, Wis.—U. S. soldiers and volunteers are wrestling with logistical and cultural barriers as they transform a rural military base into a small city hosting nearly 13,000 Afghan evacuees.

The Army overcame early hurdles, such as understanding Afghan food preferences, but the persistent need for volunteers and the realities of housing foreign civilians on a base designed for spartan military training threaten to strain the effort as it stretches into the winter with no certain dates for resettlement.

On Thursday, the U.S. government allowed reporters into Fort McCoy for the first time, providing a curated and brief look into evacuees’ lives.

Afghan adults, mostly men—some in traditional clothes, others in Western attire—walked through the grass inside a fenced-off perimeter or milled about streets that run between barracks built decades ago. Children played soccer or Frisbee in grassy areas. American military police sauntered down the streets like cops on the beat, returning waves and hellos from people sitting on barracks stoops.

Sameer Amini once worked at the embassy in Kabul and arrived in the U.S. about a month ago with his wife and two children.

“We have a space to sleep, we have toiletries, we have hygiene, medical, food,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not a home, but as a temporary home, as a transit area, we have everything that we are saying we should have.”

U.S. military police patrol Fort McCoy, one of the U.S. bases hosting Afghan who are being processed for resettlement.

Photo: pool/Reuters

In other buildings, children cut out construction paper in an activity area while others took English-language lessons in a co-ed classroom. Older boys and young men ferried plastic bags full of boxed meals to their families’ barracks.

Fort McCoy hosts the largest number of Afghans among the eight U.S. military bases that are processing tens of thousands of Afghans who fled their country following the Taliban takeover. Many of those at the base had worked with American forces or diplomats and brought their families with them. Some had fought alongside American forces as Afghan National Army soldiers.

Despite experience among American soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan and Afghans who worked with Americans, however, some cultural misunderstandings have taken place.

In August, soldiers at Fort McCoy and Afghans were confused and upset by hygiene practices. Every toilet on base was Western style, with a seat and toilet paper. But a number of Afghans are accustomed to restrooms that allow them to squat so they don’t have to physically touch the toilet. It led to some cases of Afghans relieving themselves outside, according to soldiers, aid workers and Afghans

Instead of retrofitting or constructing squat toilets, the Americans talked to Afghans on the propriety and ubiquity of Western toilets, base officials said. All toilets on base remain Western style.

In the early days of the resettlement effort, a contractor running the chow hall served up shrimp for meals, an unfamiliar food for many Afghans. They didn’t eat it, said army officials.

Afghans on base complained of hourslong lines for food before officials streamlined the process with color-coded wristbands and meal cards to ensure people weren’t coming back to the line multiple times and hoarding food, according to base officials.

Feedback came from individual Afghans approaching soldiers to voice complaints, but also through shuras, or formal meetings of elders representing the community. Senior U.S. Army officers with Afghanistan combat experience were appointed mayors to help address some issues and make changes, according to base officials.

The shrimp disappeared, as did American rice, swapped for basmati rice. New spices, hummus and dates were added to the chow hall’s menu. Everything is certified halal, according to Col. Jennifer McDonough.

Base leadership built clotheslines near the buildings for Afghans who wanted to hand wash their laundry, after a number of them arrived with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Base officials said not all evacuees have been to the clothing-donation center, a process that involves bussing them across base to warehouses.

As the Wisconsin winter approaches, there is no timeline for when the evacuees’ paperwork will be processed and when they will be resettled, according to base officials and Afghans. Much of that is beyond the Army’s purview, depending instead on the Departments of State and Homeland Security.

A volunteer, Sandra Hoeser plays Frisbee, with Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

Photo: Barbara Davidson/Associated Press

“We don’t know exactly about that, like how long that will take, nobody has an answer for that,” said Nasir Ahmad, a U.S. military interpreter awaiting his final processing for a visa and a work permit.

Some Afghans hope to get paperwork completed and to leave the base before cold weather sets in and have declined accepting winter boots from the donation center, according to soldiers at the warehouse. The soldiers have pushed evacuees to take the boots, just to be safe.

At Fort Pickett, in Virginia, Abdul, who worked for the U.S. Embassy and asked for his full name to be withheld for security reasons, says his wife recently gave birth to their third child, and officials at the Virginia base have been unable to provide them with a bassinet.

The U.S. also lost their luggage, he said. As a result, the family was forced to wear the same set of clothes for weeks. When his wife gave birth about 10 days ago, relatives came to the hospital and delivered a bag of clothes for the family. They couldn’t deliver the clothes to the base because there was no way to get personal deliveries, he said.

While Abdul has asked to leave the base and stay with relatives in California, officials are refusing to let them leave until the family can be formally resettled, a process that Abdul has been told could take weeks, or even months.

“We’re happy,” he said, “we stay patient.”

The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment, but U.S. officials have previously said that if Afghans left early they would be required to give up federal benefits.

One logistical obstacle ahead is that the military effort operates in tandem with aid groups, such as the American Red Cross, which ended operations on Sept. 30.

The resettlement effort is led by the Department of Homeland Security, but the military is responsible in large part for providing the federal manpower and logistics.

While the federal government provides housing and food, a substantial amount of clothing, toiletries and other support came from the American Red Cross, whose departure is leaving the government scrambling to fill staffing and supply shortages at bases across the country, according to people familiar with the effort and internal DHS emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

At Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, the local DHS coordinator said in an email days before the Red Cross was preparing to leave, “We are unaware of who will step in to cover their 24/7 response as well as the approx. 80 personnel.”

Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin have access to a donation center, where shoes, among other basics, are available.

Photo: barbara davidson/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“Anything that involves providing for the well-being and safety of Afghan nationals, we ensure that is provided for,” said a DHS spokesman in an interview, adding that donations from the public and outside groups helped the effort. The spokesman said the resettlement effort involved a “whole of government and a whole of society approach.”

At Fort McCoy the volunteer group Save Our Allies has backfilled many of the Red Cross functions. Another volunteer group, Team Rubicon, has been part of the effort since its early days and will remain.

The federal government requested hundreds of volunteers to take over the Red Cross effort, which has provided some 800 support personnel since the start of the mission.

“This temporary support was intended to be a bridge, providing urgent care to families until long-term, sustained support for evacuees could be put in place,” Red Cross spokeswoman Jenelle Eli said in an email.

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

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