By Phil Stewart
JOINTBASEMCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, New Jersey – It could be the happy moments, like news of the 24 babies born here or last weekend’s wedding. Or maybe it’s talk of the trauma among evacuees or the Afghans picking through clothes on folding tables after losing absolutely everything.
But there’s a sense that life’s events, in all of their complexity, are simply unfolding for the over 9,300 Afghan evacuees who have come to call this U.S. military base in New Jersey home over the past month or so – and who may be here for some time.
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is one of eight locations in the United States hosting tens of thousands of Afghans who fled aboard U.S. evacuation flights when the United States exited Afghanistan last month after losing the war to the Taliban. Trying to make them feel welcome, officials here refer to the Afghans as their “guests.”
Signs of the swelling logistical challenges are everywhere. Construction crews push piles of gravel around and are adding to the already vast expanse of white tents housing evacuees. Clothes are draped across chain-link fences, presumably air-drying. Children are everywhere.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, unseen challenges are just as daunting, particularly in the area of mental health.
“Everybody here has been through a traumatic experience fleeing Afghanistan,” said one U.S. military official, briefing U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outside a women-only dormitory.
Austin was visiting on Monday as Liberty Village celebrated a major milestone: Eleven Afghans from two families were the first to leave the base to be resettled inside the United States.
It was a small step, and a sign of how much work lies ahead.
“I know this is not easy,” Austin said, as he thanked U.S. personnel. “I know we came together … in a very short period of time. But you have done remarkable work.”
‘I’D LOVE TO BE A RESIDENT‘
The Monday visit was the first time reporters were allowed into Liberty Village. The base has a history of aiding evacuees. In 1999, it received more than 4,000 refugees fleeing the war in Kosovo.
When Afghans arrive, they are given wristbands with unique identification numbers. Some were lucky enough to get places in dormitories. Others are staying in massive tents with only cloth privacy barriers separating families.
The community surrounding the base has donated everything from school supplies to toys and prayer rugs. But the scale of donations initially overwhelmed military personnel.
As Liberty Village expanded, it began regular purchases of supplies and encouraged well-wishers to shift to electronic gift cards instead of physical donations for evacuees.
Not everyone got the memo. One local resident said in a recent town hall event with her congressman that she pulled into a collection site with donations and saw “lots and lots of open bags sitting out there in the rain.”
“I now have boxes and boxes of things that I purchased that I would love to give,” she said.
How long Liberty Village will exist is unclear. U.S. government officials have set up makeshift offices to fast-track paperwork for Afghans, shortening a sometimes years-long process to weeks or months to allow their resettlement.
But it’s clear Liberty Village is bracing for the cold weather ahead, with more evacuees due to arrive from U.S. bases overseas.
Afghans here are also settling in. A group of Afghan women set up a beauty salon at Liberty Village that helped get the bride ready for the wedding last weekend.
Back in Afghanistan, viral videos circulated showing beauty parlors painting over images of women as the Taliban retook control. During the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, they barred women from leaving home without a male relative and shuttered schools for girls.
As Austin walked around Liberty Village during his Monday visit, he heard from two women who hoped to become doctors in the United States. They beamed with optimism.
“I’d love to be a resident of America,” one of them said.
“You will be,” Austin replied.