FORT MCCOY, Wis. – Reporters were given a glimpse Thursday of Afghan refugees' lives on a Wisconsin Army post, getting to see the new arrivals playing soccer with soldiers and toting groceries to the barracks where they're being housed as they wait for their new lives in America to really begin.
The U.S. Army and the Department of State led a group of journalists on a tightly-controlled tour of Fort McCoy, a training post about 150 miles (241 kilometers) northwest of Milwaukee.
The fort is one of eight military installations across the country that are temporarily housing the tens of thousands of Afghans who were forced to flee their homeland in August after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban took control. Nearly 13,000 were sent to Fort McCoy, where they've been acclimating to the U.S. and undergoing background checks before federal officials help them relocate to more permanent homes.
Questions about conditions at the post have come to the forefront in recent weeks, with Democratic U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore and Ilhan Omar calling for an investigation after the Wisconsin State Journal reported that many Afghans hadn't received new clothes and had to endure long lines for food. Some Republicans, meanwhile, questioned whether the refugees were being properly vetted after one of them was charged with having sexual contact with a minor and another was charged with assaulting his wife.
Officials on Thursday took turns telling reporters that all was well at the post. They walked reporters between the rows of barracks housing the evacuees, stopping to watch a pickup soccer game between Afghans and soldiers. Children were everywhere — Brig. Gen. Christopher Norrie said they make up nearly half the refugees at the fort — and they wore all manner of clothing, from their native garb to flip-flops, shorts and parkas.
Families laid out clothing on fences to dry. The barracks have heat and hot water and the post offers eight self-serve laundromats, but Norrie said washing and drying clothes at home is a bonding event for Afghans.
The sidewalks were covered with children's chalk drawings. Reporters were allowed to briefly observe a class in which Afghans of all ages were learning how to use English to buy something at a store.
Adults carried bags of food home from the posts' delis. Clusters of men watched the reporters pass by from the barracks' porches, while others watched through their windows. Groups of children smiled and laughed as the entourage passed.
Officials took reporters through a clothing donation center packed with Afghan women choosing things for their children to wear. Also on the tour was a health clinic and one of the post's four cafeterias that are available to the evacuees. The facility resembled a high school cafeteria, with rows of tables and chairs. The lunch entrée was chicken curry along with bananas, oranges and other fruits.
Military officials said the refugees have been divided into eight “neighborhoods” that each have their own mosque. The Islamic Society of Milwaukee has donated Qurans, they said. Post leaders have been meeting with refugee leadership councils weekly, said Lt. Col. Joe Mickley.
The evacuees don't want to live as wards of the U.S. government and instead want to contribute to society, he said.
“They all see themselves as the next American dream, which is possible,” Mickley said.
A handful of refugees who speak English and volunteered to speak to reporters under Department of State supervision told harrowing stories about flying out of Kabul's airport as the old regime collapsed.
Khwaga Ghani, a 30-year-old producer for National Public Radio, said she was building a life in Kabul. She had a house, a car and a tight-knit group of friends. She had to leave it all behind when the Taliban took over, fleeing to the airport and spending two nights on the runway before she could get a flight.
“I was making a life, a living for myself,” she said. “I had to leave everything behind so I could stay alive.”
She has lined up a journalism fellowship at the University of California-Berkley and is simply waiting to be released. She said she feels safe at Fort McCoy — “I’m a grown-up girl, I can take care of myself,” she said — and that she has everything she needs, but that the boredom is intense.
Sameer Amini, 36, had been a program coordinator at the U.S. embassy. He said he, his wife and their two children, ages 5 and 2, had to brave a number of Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport. They arrived to find thousands of people on the runways. They spent two days and two nights, suffering sunburns and freezing after nightfall, before they could get on a plane.
He's been offered a job as a State Department contractor in Arlington, Virginia, but until he and his family are allowed to leave Fort McCoy, they'll have nothing to do, he said.
“(The post) is comfortable. It's not a home but we have resources we need," he said. “(But) just waiting is boring.”
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