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They Fled the Taliban. Now They’re in a Tent City in New Mexico.

Abul Ahmed describes the living conditions inside the Fort Bliss refugee camp.

James Stout

September 30, 2021

The Biden administration provided the first public look inside the US military base where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are screened, amid questions about how the government is caring for the refugees and vetting them. (Farnoush Amiri / AP Photo)

In late August, 26-year-old Abul Ahmed was heading to his university in Kabul to fill out some paperwork when he got a call from a friend. “Don’t go to your house, because it’s dangerous. The Taliban are there,” Abul recalled being told. Abul said he wasn’t going to leave his family, but after the Taliban took over Kabul, he knew they couldn’t stay at home. “The Taliban broke into our compound, and they stole our car,” he told me. “They beat up my uncle and searched our stuff.”

Abul, whose brother Hamid translated our interview and formerly worked as a linguist for the US military, moved to a safe house near the Kabul airport. The family split up for their safety. Their father fled the city as news of the Taliban arrival broke, and they haven’t seen him since. “There was chaos,” Abul told me. “You felt like you had lost everything.”

Hamid, Abul, and their sister escaped Afghanistan a month ago. Abul spoke to me from Fort Bliss’s tent village in New Mexico, near the Texas border. Hamid is in North Carolina helping relocate more Afghans to the United States. Abul told me about the feelings of anxiety, worry, and despair that his family and thousands of others faced when the Taliban seized the country.

Unlike Abul, Hamid is an American citizen thanks to his service with the US military and lives in the US. In early August, he flew back to Afghanistan to help his family get out. He said he initially planned for them to travel “to safety in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.” On August 15, they had appointments to get fingerprinted and pick up their passports—but that was the day Kabul fell.

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Hamid left Afghanistan two days later and began desperately trying to organize flights and visas for his family. By August 25, the US military’s massive airlift was in full swing. Eventually it would evacuate 123,000 people. Hamid called Abul around 4 am with a simple message: Get to the airport. With only a change of clothes in his backpack, Abul and his sister passed through the Abbey Gate just 24 hours before an Islamic State suicide bomber killed more than 180 people at that spot.

The two siblings have been at the Fort Bliss tent city since late August. On arrival, they received Covid-19 vaccines and several other tests and shots. “They told us that we’ll get the second [Covid-19 vaccine] shot wherever we are going to be,” he said. A DHS spokesperson confirmed that all refugees were offered a Covid-19 vaccine as well as other vaccines and tests on arrival. Right now Abul and his sister are nervously awaiting news on what their status will be in the United States. “We have no idea what is next,” Abul said. “They have promised us they’ll send us to the states we want to live in with people we know, but we have been here a long time and some people have been here longer.”

Abul and Hamid’s father was an officer in the Afghan National Army. On the morning of August 15, Hamid told him to leave the house and hide. He escaped, but he wasn’t able to get on a flight before the Taliban captured the Kabul airport. Hamid said that talking to his father now is difficult. “These are the hardest conversations, and I am having them on a daily basis. Sometimes I just keep the conversations short, I say, ‘What do you need? Do you have money? Food and water? OK,’ and then I cut the phone. It’s hard for me to keep up a conversation.”

Conditions in the tent village might not be as dangerous as Kabul, but they are far from ideal, according to Abul: “For the past month, night time was the most horrible time for us, because every day it got colder, and we didn’t have enough warm clothes or any thick blankets to fight against the cold. They gave us a blanket that was so thin we could see through it.”

Abul said that as fall sets in, he’s even more worried. “We don’t have any warm clothes. The shop inside the camp is super expensive and very low quality, so it is not worth it to buy something [from there] that only lasts for a day,” Abul told me. “One day we went to talk to them about this, and they replied, ‘You guys should be thankful for what you have.’ A lot of people here do not even have blankets!”

Some donated clothing is distributed from a tent, but distribution is slow, and the clothes often don’t fit. “People stay in that line for days to get the clothing they need,” Abul said. “They close [the donation tent] at a given time, and people are waiting overnight until the next morning to get what they need. Sometimes they don’t have shoes or the right size clothing, so people can’t even get something to wear even after waiting 12 or 24 hours.”

The refugees are served two hot meals a day, and sometimes “bread and jelly or fruit” as a third meal. Abul said the food isn’t great, often it’s “not cooked enough or it’s burned.” Still, he said he appreciates the effort the staff are making to cook Afghan food and to ask the refugees what they’d like to eat. “The guy doing the cooking is always asking for feedback.”

Even refugees who have friends or family in the United States struggle to get help. Hamid explained that only officers and soldiers assigned to the refugee area can go into the tent city and that getting cash to his brother is very difficult. With Hamid’s military connections, Abul may end up luckier than most. “I know someone who works on the base,” Hamid said. “I am waiting to confirm with her that I can send her money with Venmo or something and then she can buy a gift card [for Abul].”

Until September 22, nearly a month after his arrival, Abul slept in a large tent with other families and groups. Then on that day, the military partitioned the tent, and each family or group was given its own section. Each tent or small group of tents has a “mayor” to whom the occupants can address grievances. The US military appoints the mayor, who is usually a US Army officer.

In the big tents, Abul said, “there was a lot of tension and fights break out all the time, especially over the kids. It’s not a big issue with ethnicity or language problems. One of the kids is making a mess, and the others are complaining—that kind of thing.” Aside from sitting in the tents, waiting on news, or scrolling through social media, there isn’t much to do. Children had little available to them until the military constructed a school a week ago. There is one mosque for 12,000 people, but it’s not big enough, so “people pray whenever, in the street rooms or tents.”

According to a DHS spokesperson, Afghans at Fort Bliss are not detained. While their exact status varies on a case by case basis, most of those who did not manage to obtain visas before leaving Afghanistan are in the United States on “humanitarian parole”—but housing, medical attention, help with employment authorization, and other services are only available on the base. And refugees say that leaving temporarily, say to buy food or clothing, is impractical given the size of the base. “People who have green cards or visas approved” can take flights, Abul explained, but for everyone else, “if you go out, you are going to lose a lot.”

Neither of the brothers knows what’s next. Abul and his sister are fortunate to have escaped, but now they have to start a new life in the United States. Abul told me that he’s still worried for his father and that he hopes to be reunited with him. “My father’s life is at high risk. If he could just come here, and we could live together again, I would love to see that.”Abul said that he and the other refugees feel like “the most confused people in the world. The problem is that we don’t know. We are happy that we made it out, but after this we don’t know.”

James StoutTwitterJames Stout is a historian of antifascism in sports and a freelance journalist based in California.

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