Afghans settle at Camp Atterbury

JOHNSON COUNTY, Indiana – I sat in a pickup truck next to Bill Hansen, head of the US State Department at Camp Atterbury for the Indiana branch of Operation Allies Welcome, as we walked past and looked out the windows Afghan evacuees marching through the streets of Camp Atterbury – hanging their clothes on clotheslines to dry them and lining up at Nathan’s Hot Dogs with their children for lunch.

“This is their Ellis Island,” said Hansen, recalling the New York reception center where millions of refugees from Europe first landed on American soil to begin their new lives in the Land of Plenty. over a century ago.

Already ten babies have been born to Afghan mothers housed at Camp Atterbury since September 1, automatically becoming American citizens.

There was a wedding inside the base chapel.

Sulaman Akbarzada married her fiance Arzo last weekend, fulfilling a promise he had made to her over the past few days as Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban who arrived in Kabul on the day the couple were due to marry. .

“I give him my word that, ‘When we go to America, I’ll take a wedding for you’, and thank you to the American people for making me be my word, yes, Arzo, I love you.”

Back home, Sulaman was an electrician. He would like to relocate to San Diego.

“They can put us anywhere they want,” he said, gripping Arzo’s hand. “I just want peace.”

About 7,000 Afghans have arrived at Camp Atterbury since the start of last month and some have successfully completed the resettlement transition process.

“We’ve had about 330 that have already left base,” said program coordinator Aaron Batt. “Many of them had people in communities that they could go and live with. Some have also been picked up by our resettlement agencies and have been accommodated.

While some evacuees left the base, 320 more arrived over the weekend and 150 more are expected to register today.

“Here, over the next four days, we are already starting to see around 100 more people being picked up by their relocation agencies at Camp Atterbury,” said Batt.

The gender composition of the Afghan population is 42% women, 58% men and 40% of evacuees are under 15 years old.

The Department of Homeland Security is exploring options to enroll young people in formal classes while continuing to provide life skills training.

“The children are doing very well. They are teachable. You can teach them different things and they will understand that we are trying to teach them different things about the culture and life here, ”said Sara Jallel, a teacher. “We did an example of how to use a crosswalk, cross streets and sidewalks and not run down the street after the ball. Toys that take to the streets.

Everywhere you look at Camp Atterbury you spot children, playing football with soldiers, clinging to their parents, munching on snacks.

Journalists visited reception facilities where Afghan identities are verified; medical units where evacuees are vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and COVID-19 (flu vaccinations will begin this weekend); a center where guests receive their first work authorization documents; and a dining room, one of two locations on the base where more than 20,000 meals a day are served.

The diet is Afghan proper, with guests providing advice for a menu that serves fried eggplant in a tomato yogurt stew, rice curry with raisins, Afghan beef with rice-stuffed peppers, and mastawa. , which is a rice dish with chickpeas and lamb.

All meals are prepared according to Muslim cultural norms and avoid American favorites like chicken nuggets, fries, and cheeseburgers.

“We went through some growing pains,” Batt said, “whether it was changes in the food or some of our logistical movements of people. We have managed to overcome them and we are now in a phase where we can provide educational and recreational opportunities that start to fill the time as they wait to be resettled.

The barracks’ living quarters are generally divided into blocks of six separate buildings, often separated by gender, with mothers looking after children under the age of 14.

Each block is overseen by a U.S. Army officer who is advised by a residents’ council that self-regulates the living environment, including assigning cleaning duties, resolving minor disputes, and communicating guest concerns to supervisory authorities.

“We want to be able to give these people the tools to step into their own community and be contributing citizens and try to provide them with these training opportunities,” Batt said, “but also reward them when they keep their own well-maintained barracks, and garbage collection in and around.

Residents attend city council-style meetings where women are encouraged to speak up through empowerment groups organized by non-grassroots women volunteers in the Muslim community of central Indiana.

In a recent meeting, according to an official, as older men argued over a woman’s dress style, she replied, “You can’t tell me what to do now. We are in America.

About 1,600 uniformed Defense Department personnel are participating in Operation Allies Welcome at Camp Atterbury and hundreds of them have also served in Afghanistan with a soldier meeting his former translator on base.

For many Afghans, the medical facilities at Camp Atterbury provide them with rare access to on-site medical care for chronic health conditions or minor care, as well as a unique opportunity to meet medical specialists for the first time. mental and behavioral to help them sort through the trauma of the war-torn land they left behind and their chaotic journey to the United States.

Task Force Surgeon Captain Luke Zabrocki said every day he hears “heartbreaking stories” from evacuees showing signs of stress, anxiety, depression and separation trauma.

On the walls of several places, Halloween display cases are in place to prepare the children for the party they will have on October 30.

Everywhere you look on the base, expertly decorated coloring book pages from Afghan children hang on the walls.

In one of the first warehouses where evacuees are processed upon arrival at the base, after their long journey from the other side of the world, a child colored a picture of the red, black and green Afghan flag flying over his country native. .

Another drew a red, white and blue American flag with the words “I Love U Army” written on a white stripe.

Atterbury camp is expected to accommodate Afghan evacuees at least until the end of February.

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