Afghan evacuees at a military base in South Jersey have ‘extreme degree of optimism’ about the next, says war veteran

A cold wind blew between the brick buildings of “Liberty Village”, the enclave of Afghan evacuees at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, but inside the gym it was hot and rocking.

Two soldiers knocked a volleyball over a net with a pair of Afghan children. Half a circle of women laughed and talked on the other side of the field. Children ran in all directions. And everyone wanted to practice their English.

Lieutenant Colonel Adam Howland became an attraction the moment he stepped through the door and onto the wooden floor – an American soldier speaking Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two national languages. He was formally trained as an expert in culture and served in the country as a bridge between people and agencies.

Marzia, a girl of maybe 8, hurried to show him her homemade ID sign, on which she designated herself as a volunteer interpreter. Next to her, a little boy was fighting for Howland’s attention.

“How are you, little guy?” asked Howland in dari.

“Little guy?” the child shot back in false anger. “You’re a little guy!”

As the leading cultural adviser, Howland, 41, spent the past three months as a central point of contact and problem solving for 11,100 Afghans, all of whom awaited resettlement in communities across the United States.

Liberty Village is roughly the same size as the permanent population of Ocean City, NJ and three times larger than Cape May. For practical reasons, it is a city located on a military base, home to 3,377 families.

The brick house is supplemented by what are commonly called tents, although these structures are hardened and more resistant than canvas.

Half of the Afghans here are children, and 1,400 of them are between 5 and 12 years old. Several couples have been married. More than 30 babies have been born and about 300 women are pregnant.

In the midst of the chaotic evacuation that took place when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August, the base became one of eight U.S. military installations to serve as “safe havens.” Together, they now house about 50,000 Afghans.

The federal government wants to quickly move people away from the bases and into permanent homes to get them started creating new American lives. But that movement, while rising, continues to be hampered by a tight housing market – people can not leave if there is nowhere to go.

Colder weather sets in as autumn passes.

And Howland also traveled, completing last week a mission in which he essentially acted as the liaison between the military and the evacuees, with the task of helping each side deal with the other’s needs, wants and abilities.

He was on his way back to his home station at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he is commander of the 319th Combat Training Squadron. There were no immediate words about a replacement. Howland was initially employed in the service through the ROTC program at Purdue University in Indiana, from which he graduated with a sociology degree in 2005.

“He was all ears when it came to the problems people face at the base,” said Hili Chakhansuri, a former Afghan official who recently left the village to be resettled in Oklahoma City. “And he did his best to find the solution he could.”

The base has generally been banned for news reporters seeking to write about the lives of evacuees. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security allowed The Inquirer to talk to Howland and visit the village with him, but not to interview or take pictures of the people who live there.

Back in 2014, Howland was selected for a military program called Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands, which sought to develop cultural experts for these countries. As an “AfPak hand”, he was taught to speak Dari, and was then sent to Afghanistan during broadcasts from 2015 to 2018.

He served as a cultural and linguistic link between Afghans and US and NATO troops. It included specific war missions, but also programs to improve lives and the future. He helped create the Afghan equivalent for the boy and girl scouts so kids could have fun learning scout skills.

A lasting memory is not centered on warfare, but on youth: One day as he was driving into a base, he was greeted by a little boy dressed in Afghan military fatigue – who immediately interrupted a greeting. It felt like progress.

When Howland walks through Liberty Village – officials hate when people call it a “camp” – everyone wants a word, topics range from family to health care to football to social media to the price of cars.

“Sometimes they do not know who to talk to, or feel like they are running around, so they get to the familiar face and the listening ear,” Howland said. “Mine [work] talking to people and helping them understand where they are in resettlement. Answer their questions. To be their lawyer. “

People fear for the safety of their families in Afghanistan. A woman turned to Howland in tears last week and felt helpless to help her loved ones.

“My heart hurts,” she told him. “Because I can not support them and they can not support themselves.”

The Afghans at the South Jersey base belong to different ethnicities, social classes, and religious sects. They come from villages and towns. Some have multiple college degrees, and others never saw a flush toilet before reaching the United States.

At other bases, not everything has been peaceful.

In Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, an evacuee was charged with assault and strangulation of his wife, and another man was charged with committing sexual crimes against minors. Officials at Fort Bliss said a female U.S. service member was assaulted by a group of male evacuees at the Doña Ana complex in New Mexico.

Department of Homeland Security officials did not answer a specific question about whether any evacuees at the South Jersey base have been charged with crimes. Task Force Liberty DHS spokesman Alvin Phillips responded: “All incidents of suspected criminal conduct in safe havens are referred to law enforcement for appropriate action.”

In their home country were some evacuated doctors, soldiers, barbers, civil engineers, chefs and internet technology specialists.

Here are some specific information to help you create a future: Where can I get study materials to take the pharmacy exam? How can I get a copy of the driving license test for the state where I will be resettled?

“What I get from our guests is an extreme amount of optimism about what’s next,” Howland said. “They spend their time moving forward.”

Everyone wants to know when they can leave and where they are going. People who have left the base say they got tired of standing in line for even the slightest convenience, like a cup of tea.

Eventually, more than 700 Afghans are expected to settle in Philadelphia, among more than 1,500 across the country. Those who relocate locally could not only come from South Jersey, but also from other bases. New Jersey is expected to settle more than 500 evacuees.

It is uncertain when everyone will leave Liberty Village, when the operation will end.

“I do not know how it will end,” Howland said. “But I know how it’s going to start for the 3,377 families that are here. It’s going to start with them leaving base and starting a new life in the United States with nothing but dreams that can be fulfilled.”

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