Over 35,000 Afghan Refugees Still Await U.S. Resettlement 4 Months After Evacuation Ended

Thousands of Afghan refugees are still asking when they will be officially resettled into the United States as part of Operation Allies Welcome.

Refugees from the war-torn country that the U.S. withdrew from this year are still coming into the country as part of the program. Operation Allies Welcome is the largest U.S. refugee resettlement program in decades, with over 37,000 refugees currently resettled in communities around the country. However, that leaves over 35,000 still being held in six military bases as the program attempts to relocate them.

One such refugee is Esrar Ahmad Saber, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army that left the country with little besides the clothes he was wearing. However, he has been stuck at New Jersey's Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst since August. The base currently holds the most refugees out of the six designated camps around the country. Although he came to the U.S. by himself, he is seeing many families wait for their turn at a new life as the days pass by.

"They want to go to their new homes and start their new lives," he told the Associated Press. "They are really excited about it. But the fact is, the process is very slow."

Saber is far from the only person to take notice of Operation Allies Welcome's slow progress at resettling refugees. Erol Kekic, a senior vice president of resettlement agency Church World Service, calls the delay "a shock to the system" due to the massive influx of refugees requiring resettlement.

Many of the agencies involved in the resettlement process are asking for help for more than just relocation. Organizations that help refugees integrate into American society, such as veterans groups and sports clubs, are getting involved in situating Afghan families. These organizations are beginning to sponsor families in order to speed up the resettlement process, a measure that many consider being a result of hasty planning.

"This thing should have been planned before they announced the withdrawal. Right? So in that sense, it is taking longer than it should," said Mark Hetfield, the president of resettlement organization HIAS. "But considering they decided to plan for this after they made the decision to withdraw, given the depletion of the capacity of the U.S. refugee program over the last four years, none of this is surprising."

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst currently holds the most refugees out of the six designated camps around the U.S. Above, Afghan refugees walk outside a temporary housing facility in Liberty Village on December 2, in Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. Photo by Barbara Davidson-Pool/Getty Images

The government last week conducted a guided tour for journalists of the New Jersey installation, where refugees stay in brick buildings previously used as barracks or in sprawling tent-like prefabricated structures.

There are fields for soccer, courts for basketball and cavernous warehouses where refugees receive clothes and other supplies. There are also classrooms for the children, who make up about 40 percent of the population, as well as language lessons and job training for adults and a medical clinic.

Afghans staying at the base go through immigration processing as well as health screening and vaccinations, including for COVID-19. More than 100 babies have been born to women at the base.

Saber, who came from Afghanistan by himself and left a brother and sister behind, says the refugees are happy, just eager to move on. "It's a dream to be here," he said. "They just want to get out as soon as possible."

Among the refugees are new arrivals as well. Ghulam Eshan Sharifi, a microbiologist, came on November 14 with his wife and two children after 23 days in Qatar. He was relieved but worried about his adult daughters back in Kabul who held government jobs before the Taliban returned.

"They have no jobs now. They cannot even go outside so we are obviously afraid about what will happen to them," Sharifi said. "We are hoping that God will solve the problem."

He said he hopes to settle in the Denver area but does not yet know when, or if, that will happen. "This is just the beginning for us," he added.

Many refugees are also recovering from a traumatic escape from a country that collapsed much more quickly than the U.S. government, at least publicly, anticipated.

"Most, if not all of them have worked with our forces and they have been part of the U.S. effort in some way," said Air Force Col. Soleiman Rahel, who came to the U.S. with his family as a refugee from Afghanistan when he was a teenager and is on a temporary assignment working with the refugees at the base. "So, it's very traumatic. It's very hard for them."

Rahel said he can appreciate the challenges the new arrivals will face since his own parents confronted similar ones, including being forced to take lower-level jobs than they were accustomed to in Afghanistan so they could support their family and the kids could go to school.

He also can understand why so many of the refugees want to move to areas where there are established Afghan communities—particularly Northern California, the Washington, D.C., area and Houston—even though those requests are straining resettlement efforts there and contributing to the delays.

"That's natural, because we always gravitate towards our culture, toward people who can help you," Rahel said. "But we try to give them some comfort that regardless of where they go, American society is such a forgiving and giving society that people will be there to help them out."

Saber said he hopes his experience as a military interpreter will allow him to join the Army. He recently learned that he would be getting resettled in Phoenix, but has no idea when he'll leave. "I'm just waiting for a flight."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Liberty Village
Many refugees are recovering from a traumatic escape from a country that collapsed much more quickly than was anticipated. Above, Afghan refugee mothers and children play in a park in Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix- Lakehurst in New Jersey on December 2. Barbara Davidson/Pool via AP