A fortnight after the first flight of refugees landed at Biggs Airfield, a “village” sprung up in the desert outside El Paso.
An austere military camp built in the 1960s to house 1,800 soldiers in training has evolved into a campus of dormitories and mess halls, community centers and soccer fields, as well as religious and medical facilities housing nearly 10 000 Afghan refugees, almost a third of them children. .
“Our goal here at Fort Bliss is to ensure the safety of the personnel in our care and move them quickly to US cities,” Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe said during a tour Friday.
He described the refugee camp on the New Mexico side of the base as “the village of Doña Ana”, where the refugees are “guests”.
The roughly two-hour tour of Fort Bliss was the first media access provided by the Biden administration to one of the country’s eight military sites hosting Afghan refugees. US officials banned journalists from interviewing the refugees.
Dormitories under white tents are equipped to accommodate 100 people. Families are kept together and there are curtains inside the dorms to provide some privacy. Single men and women are in separate quarters.
They sleep on army green cots and are given packaged sheets – a blanket, a pillow – and a hygiene kit. A massive amount of donations have arrived and people can pick up clothing, shoes, sanitary ware and prayer rugs donated by individuals and businesses.
On Friday, volunteers were unloading stacks of Amazon boxes. Afghan families lined up for lunch around noon in one of four dining rooms – on some days lamb or chicken, rice, vegetables and flatbread – under a canopy of military netting to create shade against a blazing sun. lead.
Men and boys waited in shorts and t-shirts, while others wore the traditional shalwar kameez, a tunic over loose pants gathered at the waist. Mothers wearing colorful hijab scarves left the dining hall balancing piles of take-out containers, calling after children carrying cans of Coca-Cola.
More than 65,000 people fled Afghanistan as the United States ended its 20-year presence in late August and the Taliban took control of Kabul.
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Of these, 49,000 have landed at military sites across the country, while the rest are undergoing biographical and biometric security checks at “lily pad” sites in stopover countries.
The historic U.S. Kabul airlift began weeks ago before ending Aug. 31, and the first Afghan refugees began arriving at Fort Bliss Aug. 21. The Department of Homeland Security, which is leading the interagency effort to support Afghan refugees, calls its effort “Operation Allies Welcome.”
In Fort Bliss, the resettlement process has already begun.
A DHS official confirmed that 130 people had been cleared of “transformation”. Other than US citizens and lawful permanent residents who are free to leave the camp and move around the country, no refugees have yet left Fort Bliss. Those allowed to leave are now waiting for resettlement agencies to confirm their placement.
Many will seek to travel to areas with established Afghan communities, including Northern Virginia and California, the DHS official said.
Afghans in the Fort Bliss camp are not detained, but their access to refugee benefits – including housing and other supports – is conditional on them remaining in the refugee program and awaiting placement through a resettlement agency, a State Department official said.
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A Department of Defense official said Fort Bliss had received 80 flights so far; others are on hold as the camp has reached capacity.
With basic needs met, the army is now focusing on improving the quality of life in the camp, the official said. The soldiers try to meet the needs as they see them, playing football and volleyball with the children.
Some refugees have started a game of cricket, the official said.
Twice now, dance parties have erupted in dining halls, the official said.
Four babies were born.
Lauren Villagran can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.