JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, New Jersey, Sept. 27 (Reuters) – It could be happy times, like the news of the 24 babies born here or last weekend’s wedding. Or maybe we’re talking about the trauma of evacuees or Afghans picking up clothes from folding tables after having lost absolutely everything.
But it feels like life’s events, in all their complexity, are simply unfolding for the more than 9,300 Afghan evacuees who have come to settle at this US military base in New Jersey in the past month or so – and who might be here for a while.
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is one of eight sites in the United States hosting tens of thousands of Afghans who fled on American evacuation flights when the United States left Afghanistan last month after losing the war against the Taliban. Trying to make them feel welcome, officials here call Afghans their “guests”.
The signs of growing logistical challenges are everywhere. Construction crews are pushing piles of gravel and adding to the already vast expanse of white tents housing the evacuees. The clothes are draped over chain-link fences, presumably air-dried. Children are everywhere.
Unsurprisingly, the unseen challenges are just as daunting, especially in the area of ââmental health.
“Everyone here has had a traumatic experience fleeing Afghanistan,” said a US military official, briefing US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin outside a female dormitory.
Austin was visiting Monday as Liberty Village celebrated a milestone: eleven Afghans from two families were the first to leave the base to relocate to the United States.
It was a small step, and a sign of the amount of work ahead.
âI know it’s not easy,â Austin said, thanking the US staff. “I know we got together … in a very short time. But you have done an amazing job.”
“I WOULD LIKE TO BE A RESIDENT”
Monday’s visit was the first time reporters were allowed into Liberty Village. The base is used to helping evacuees. In 1999, it hosted more than 4,000 refugees fleeing the war in Kosovo.
When Afghans arrive, they are given bracelets with unique identification numbers. Some were lucky enough to get places in dormitories. Others stay in massive tents with only fabric privacy barriers separating families.
The community surrounding the base donated everything from school supplies to toys and prayer rugs. But the scale of the donations first overwhelmed the military.
As Liberty Village grew, he began to regularly purchase supplies and encouraged supporters to switch to electronic gift cards instead of physical donations for evacuees.
Not everyone received the memo. A local resident said at a recent town hall event with her congresswoman that she went to a collection site with donations and saw “lots and lots of open bags sitting there under the rain”.
âI now have boxes and boxes of things that I bought that I would like to donate,â she said.
The duration of Liberty Village’s existence is unclear. U.S. government officials have set up makeshift offices to speed up paperwork for Afghans, sometimes shortening a process from years to weeks or months to allow for their resettlement.
But it’s clear Liberty Village is bracing for the coming cold, with more evacuees expected to arrive from US bases overseas.
Afghans are also settling here. A group of Afghan women opened a beauty salon in Liberty Village that helped prepare the bride for the wedding last weekend.
Back in Afghanistan, viral videos circulated showing beauty salons painting images of women as the Taliban regained control. During the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, they prohibited women from leaving the home without male relatives and closed schools for girls.
As Austin walked through Liberty Village during his Monday visit, he heard from two women who were hoping to become doctors in the United States. They radiated optimism.
âI would love to be a US resident,â one said.
“You will be,” Austin replied.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Karishma Singh
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