Afghan refugees find ‘peace and hope’ resettling in US

Written by on January 26, 2022

Meagan Redman,Jake Lefferman, Zach Fannin, and Libby Cathey, ABC News

(HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.) — Thousands of miles away from her native Afghanistan, Laila finds relief in small comforts like a warm meal inside a makeshift tent camp in a desert in New Mexico.

Laila, whose name has been changed for safety concerns, is among thousands of Afghan refugees who have found a temporary home cycling through the “Aman Omid Village” on Holloman Air Force Base, one of several military installations in the U.S. designated to provide housing to Afghan refugees while they transition into more permanent homes. The camp’s name which is in Dari — an Afghan dialect — expresses what they are searching for in the United States: peace and hope.

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“The first very important thing about the camp that I and everyone else here likes is the safety that they are giving us,” Laila told ABC News “Nightline” co-anchor Juju Chang in a recent interview. “Safety is something that we didn’t have for years in Afghanistan.”

Laila is one of the tens of thousands who were forced to flee her native country last summer, leaving behind family and friends, as the U.S. ended its longest war the same way it started: under Taliban rule.

She says it feels like only weeks ago that she fled the swift takeover.

“I was in the bank waiting to withdraw some money. I heard gunshots,” Laila recalled.

“Everyone was like, Taliban are in here, and we were hiding under the desks after I got out,” she said. “Everyone was, like, panicking.”

President Joe Biden, who has long opposed the war in Afghanistan, inherited a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces as the U.S. approached the 20-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, despite pressure from lawmakers and other allied nations to extend the mission. As his August deadline neared, the Taliban seized power and overtook the presidential palace in Kabul, signaling the collapse of the Afghan government and igniting chaos.

“Every time that there is a knock on the door, I think they are coming for me because I have worked with international agencies,” Laila told ABC News in a video diary at the time.

In many respects, she was exactly what the Taliban feared: A college-educated woman who flourished with the freedom gained during the 20 years of U.S. intervention.

Struggle to flee

Laila was a young girl when the Taliban last came to power and said she remembers being taught to hide her education from the group that governs the country under a strict interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law.

“My mother and a friend of my mom would teach us how to read and write, like we would hide our books and notebooks inside the Quran. And then we would go to my mother’s friend’s house and then learn how to read and write there,” she told ABC News.

She said she was given no reason to believe this reign would be different — so she and her husband, Yusuf, whose name has been changed for safety concerns, escaped with some 76,000 other Afghans, many of whom worked for American or Western allies that the U.S. evacuated under the Biden’s administration’s mission, “Operation Allies Welcome.”

Though she said she suspected she might be pregnant at the time, Laila left her home with nothing but a small backpack.

When she landed at a U.S. base in Doha, Qatar, she was given a pregnancy test which confirmed that she was pregnant. She later learned she’ll be having twins — which made her all the more grateful to have escaped. Tens of thousands of Afghans, who also had valid paperwork, were left behind in the chaos — and to a new order of power.

“In Afghanistan, it was scary because I didn’t want to have a baby in that situation, especially with the Taliban,” she said.

Human Rights Watch, an international human rights advocacy organization, estimates that the Taliban have already killed over 100 Afghans at the top of their list for revenge for helping Americans.

Military base offers peace, hope

“Aman Omid Village,” the massive refugee camp at Holloman Air Force Base, was just months ago a barren desert. Rows of tents spanning 50-acres were erected in the final days of the fall of Kabul as officials prepared for refugees like Laila.

The commune operates as a de facto American boot camp for new arrivals and offers resources to prepare refugees for their new lives in the U.S. Residents can participate in classes from English to sewing and receive training on how to pay taxes and avoid spam calls, for instance.

At least half of the refugees there are children who often take advantage of the open area for games and recreation.

“This is sort of that shining place for them to come to,” Air Force Brigadier Gen. Daniel Gabrielli, who heads operations at the camp, told ABC News.

Gabrielli, a commercial pilot who volunteered to deploy as part of his National Guard Service, completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan. In his 33-year military career, he said helping Afghan refugees at the base has been the most gratifying experience.

“I think it is because we’re taking care of people who’ve taken care of us, right?” he said. “What they have sacrificed for our security which is a large amount.”

“My grandfather came over after World War I from Italy, so there’s no difference in this migration, and that migration,” Gabrielli said, when asked about any resistance to their arrivals. “It is just the latest in the Great American story.”

To the general and many others, the compound in New Mexico has transformed into a modern-day Ellis Island, with people like Laila among its first immigrants — but many will never find the same refuge.

More than 3.5 million people have been displaced by conflict inside Afghanistan, including 700,000 from 2021 alone, while the war-torn country continues to face conflict, famine and COVID-19.

Writing her own American dream

The resettlement agency handling Laila’s case told her that her new home would be in South Carolina.

Organizations tasked with helping Afghans arriving in the U.S. have said they are scrambling to ramp up operations following years of downsizing due to the Trump administration’s slashed refugee program. Despite some delays to her own move, Laila expressed to ABC News her excitement at the potential.

“I don’t care if it’s South Carolina or if it’s New York, it is just a new country, a new culture, a new land, a new people,” she said.

At least, for her time there, she made the refugee camp feel like home. In the cafeteria on base, she would eat regularly with young ladies she fondly calls the “three musketeers.”

“When I came here, I was kind of like, you know, depressed from all that happened, and they were the ones that really helped me,” she said. “Every day, they would come to me and because they knew I was having twins, they would take good care of me.”

Finally, after months of waiting at Holloman Air Force Base, Laila and Yusef got permanently resettled in South Carolina in January.

Now 24 weeks pregnant, Laila says she is grateful to embark on a new life on American soil, but part of her heart will always be back home, especially with the women and girls of Afghanistan.

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