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Thousands of Afghan refugees come to Fort Lee

Thousands of Afghan refugees come to Fort Lee


Thousands of Afghan refugees come to Fort Lee for medical care, process into U.S., Sen. Kaine says after visit


FORT LEE — Inside a large tent here, Afghan children swung hula hoops around their hips, kicked soccer balls and solved jigsaw puzzles. Thousands of refugees from Afghanistan have come to Fort Lee for short-term medical care and visa processing as they prepare to find a permanent home in the United States, Sen. Tim Kaine said Monday. Many of them are children.

The refugees are often young parents and their families, which often are large. One woman gave birth on the bus en route to Fort Lee. Another gave birth shortly after arrival.

Nearly every refugee who came to the U.S. landed at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. Then they were taken to one of at least seven military installations, where the government intends for them to stay a week or two. Fort Lee in Prince George County, Fort Pickett in Nottoway County and the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico are the Virginia installations, and Fort Lee is the largest among the seven, said Kaine, D-Va.

 

The refugees arrived during a mission known as Task Force Eagle. They have experienced trauma and are nervous and afraid, Kaine said, but they’re also excited to restart their lives in the U.S.

 

“I wish the American public could see the scenes that I just saw and hear the stories I just heard,” Kaine said. Media were not allowed near the refugees on Monday – they didn't need cameras in their faces.

 

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Kaine wouldn’t specify how many refugees are coming through Fort Lee, except to say that there have been “thousands.” More than 116,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban seized Kabul. More than 140,000 have been evacuated by the U.S. military since July, Kaine said.

 

And he expects more to arrive. Some refugees who went to other countries are still hoping to come to the U.S. Plus, Kaine expects evacuations to continue despite the military’s withdrawal, which was completed late Monday, ending a 20-year military excursion that cost thousands of American lives and billions of dollars. The death toll for Afghan military, police and civilians is estimated at over 100,000.

Moving forward, the mission will pivot from a military-led operation to a diplomatic-oriented one, Kaine said.

 

The senator acknowledged the challenges the American mission might face. Though the Taliban have promised to respect women’s rights, forgive the Afghan citizens who fought against them and not to harbor terrorists, Kaine’s expectations are low.

 

“I have low confidence in the Taliban,” he said.

Medical workers at Fort Lee have screened entrants for tuberculosis, which is a significant problem in Afghanistan, Kaine said. Health professionals vaccinate them for measles and other diseases and test them for COVID-19. Their health needs are significant, and Fort Lee brought in extra medical workers to handle the influx of patients.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered refugees COVID-19 vaccines at the Dulles Expo Center, where they were staged before busing to military bases.

The U.S. government will issue special immigrant visas to the refugees who worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan. Others can seek refugee status. Some of the refugees already began their visa applications and will be cleared to leave Fort Lee as soon as their medical work is finished. Others are just now beginning the paperwork and will have a longer stay.

 

“Each family is in a different place,” Kaine said.

 

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Where they’ll go, they don’t always know. Kaine expects them to permanently relocate to places where they have family or localities with Afghan communities. Richmond and Charlottesville have small communities, Hampton Roads has a larger one and the Washington, D.C., area has a much larger community, he said.

There are 70,000 to 80,000 Afghans living in the U.S., he said, with many in Virginia, California, Texas, Maryland and Washington state.

Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defended President Joe Biden’s decision to end the mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. trained a security force larger than the Taliban that unraveled because of corruption in Afghan leadership and a lack of confidence in the leaders, he said. The next chapter in Afghanistan, is on the Afghans.

“The 20-year investment by the United States was a massive commitment,” Kaine said. “We could’ve been putting it into schools. We could’ve been putting it into highways.”

How and when the U.S. pulled its military from Afghanistan has received great criticism. Questions about the timing and process can be analyzed, he said, but his top priority for now is integrating Afghans into U.S. society.

After Biden’s election, the White House sought Kaine’s opinion on pulling out of the country, he said. Kaine told the administration that the May 1 exit negotiated by the Trump administration was too early, but that the time of American military presence there should come to an end.

It concluded with the U.S. desperately rushing Americans and Afghans out of the Kabul airport after the Taliban had taken control of the city, hordes storming the gates in hopes of leaving the country, and 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members dying from suicide bombers.

The ones who made it to Fort Lee arrived to applause, Kaine said. Now, they need to heal and begin thinking about life in America.