Children Make Up Nearly Half of Afghan Refugees Housed at Wisconsin Base

Children make up nearly half of the almost 13,000 Afghan refugees housed at Fort McCoy Army base in Wisconsin, according to Brigadier General Christopher Norrie.

The U.S. Army and the Department of State gave reporters a tour of the army post Thursday to get a glimpse of where Afghan evacuees are being housed before they are relocated to more permanent homes.

According to the Associated Press, children were everywhere. Sidewalks were covered with children's chalk drawings, and classrooms were filled with kids of all ages learning English.

Fort McCoy is one of eight military posts across the country temporarily housing the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees forced to flee their country after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Children At Fort McCoy
Children make up nearly half of the almost 13,000 Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy U.S. Army base in Wisconsin. Above, First Sergeant Abraham plays catch with an Afghan refugee child on Thursday in the Village, where Afghans are living temporarily at Fort McCoy. Barbara Davidson/Getty Images

Questions about conditions at the post have come to the forefront in recent weeks, with Democratic U.S. Representatives Gwen Moore and Ilhan Omar calling for an investigation after the Wisconsin State Journal reported that many Afghans hadn't received new clothes and had to endure long lines for food.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, questioned whether the refugees were being properly vetted after one of them was charged with having sexual contact with a minor and another was charged with assaulting his wife.

Reporters toured the barracks housing the evacuees, stopping to watch a pickup soccer game between Afghans and soldiers.

Families laid out clothing on fences to dry. The barracks have heat and hot water and the post offers eight self-serve laundromats, but Norrie said washing and drying clothes at home is a bonding event for Afghans.

Adults carried bags of food home from the posts' delis. Clusters of men watched the reporters pass by from the barracks' porches, while others watched through their windows. Groups of children smiled and laughed as the entourage passed.

Officials took reporters through a clothing donation center packed with Afghan women choosing things for their children to wear. Also on the tour was a health clinic and one of the post's four cafeterias that are available to the evacuees. The facility resembled a high school cafeteria, with rows of tables and chairs. The lunch entrée was chicken curry along with bananas, oranges and other fruits.

Military officials said the refugees have been divided into eight "neighborhoods" that each have their own mosque. The Islamic Society of Milwaukee has donated Qurans, they said. Post leaders have been meeting with refugee leadership councils weekly, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Mickley said.

The evacuees don't want to live as wards of the U.S. government and instead want to contribute to society, he said.

"They all see themselves as the next American dream, which is possible," Mickley said.

A handful of refugees who speak English and volunteered to speak to reporters under Department of State supervision told harrowing stories about flying out of Kabul's airport as the old regime collapsed.

Khwaga Ghani, a 30-year-old producer for National Public Radio, said she was building a life in Kabul. She had a house, a car and a tight-knit group of friends. She had to leave it all behind when the Taliban took over, fleeing to the airport and spending two nights on the runway before she could get a flight.

"I was making a life, a living for myself," she said. "I had to leave everything behind so I could stay alive."

She has lined up a journalism fellowship at the University of California-Berkley and is simply waiting to be released. She said she feels safe at Fort McCoy—"I'm a grown-up girl, I can take care of myself," she said—and that she has everything she needs, but that the boredom is intense.

Sameer Amini, 36, had been a program coordinator at the U.S. Embassy. He said he, his wife and their two children, ages 5 and 2, had to brave a number of Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport. They arrived to find thousands of people on the runways. They spent two days and two nights, suffering sunburn and then freezing after nightfall, before they could get on a plane.

He has been offered a job as a State Department contractor in Arlington, Virginia, but until he and his family are allowed to leave Fort McCoy, they'll have nothing to do, he said.

"[The post] is comfortable. It's not a home, but we have resources we need," he said. "But] just waiting is boring."

U.S. Soldiers and Refugees at Fort McCoy
Children make up nearly half of the almost 13,000 Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy U.S. Army base in Wisconsin. Above, U.S. Military Police walk past Afghan refugees at the Village at Fort McCoy on Thursday. Barbara Davidson/Pool via AP