What It’s Like Inside The U.S. Processing Center Welcoming Thousands Of Afghans

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Afghan evacuees sit on a bus at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, on Aug. 26. Ramstein Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force base in Europe, has hosted thousands of Afghans.

Armando Babani/AFP via Getty Images


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At the Dulles Expo Center in Virginia, a special corner is reserved just for kids, where they can play, color and draw with crayons and pads, supervised by aid workers from the humanitarian organization Save the Children.

Monika Evstatieva/NPR


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Finerty calls a wall plastered with crayon drawings her favorite spot. A huge cardboard box has been flattened and laid out to serve as a drawing board.

«My favorite use of recycled boxes,» Finerty says. «Probably the best I’ve ever seen.»

After landing at Dulles International Airport, the refugees are given a coronavirus test. If they test negative, they are bused to the center. They stream into the building and head toward a line of tables for processing. Everyone is given a wristband based on their medical condition or immigration status. The flow of people is constant.

«We had approximately 29,000 Afghans come through the Dulles space and move on to their forward bases,» says Finerty, referring to the eight U.S. military bases where they will go for further processing. «There are still more than 30,000 still to come.»

Some have worked for the U.S. military or its NATO partners and were granted a special immigrant visa and a path to citizenship — like 52-year-old Fauzia from Kabul. All last names are being withheld for security reasons. Fauzia had a career in telecommunications, and her husband and sons worked for years with the U.S. military.

An Afghan family shares a meal at the Dulles Expo Center in Virginia, where thousands of Afghan refugees arrive daily for processing and rest before they are sent to U.S. bases around the country.

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«My two sons and my husband, they served America for 22 years, they help them,» Fauzia says. «Now I want a better, more peaceful life here for my kids and for myself.»

Other Afghans at the center might have a long wait and an unknown future, arriving in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. There are young adults separated from their parents with no paperwork. Others have just scraps of paper. They can apply for asylum or wait until Congress offers a special legal status as it did for those fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Despite the unknowns, some of the young Afghans are hopeful.

Hamidullah left a good life in Kabul, but his dad worked for the Americans and it was no longer safe. The 22-year-old says he hopes he can continue his education in electrical engineering, but if Afghanistan gets better, he wants to return.

Leaving home

After leaving Afghanistan, refugees traveled through the Middle East before arriving at one of several U.S. bases in Europe.

That’s where the top U.S. officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, visited in recent days, stopping in Germany, Italy and Spain and watching as Afghans were screened before heading to the U.S.

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Afghan evacuees line up at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, on Aug. 26. After leaving Afghanistan, refugees traveled through the Middle East before arriving at one of several U.S. bases in Europe.

Armando Babani/AFP via Getty Images


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Armando Babani/AFP via Getty Images

Gen. Mark Milley visited U.S. air bases in Germany, Italy and Spain over the weekend, where Afghans were screened before heading to the United States. Milley talked with refugees, asking about the food and medical services and their lives back in Afghanistan.

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And he walks up to a picnic table where a cluster of young girls are putting together a puzzle.

One of them is 21-year-old Mahiri, from Kabul. She recalls how she fled the city and got into the airport.

«So much rush,» Mahiri says. «There were so many people. So many gunfires and these things. But we tried our best, me and my two friends. We tried our best to enter the airport. But our family, they could not make it.»

She and dozens of other children and young adults left their parents behind. She has spoken with her mother and father, she says, but wonders how they will reconnect. And where. That will be a challenge for the U.S. government, and it’s one that nobody seems to be able to answer.

In the sea of green cots at the Dulles Expo Center, a small, shy girl approaches us. She’s wearing a pink sweater with gold stars. Her hair is in a neat bun held together by a baby blue scrunchie. She says her name is Mones. She’s 10 years old and her parents were able to get out with her.

Mones came from Mazar-i-Sharif, a large city close to the Uzbekistan border. She tells us she likes it here. She draws butterflies and says those are her favorites. When we ask her what she wants to tell us most, she has a clear message. She wishes the Taliban will go away. «So our country will be in peace forever,» she says.

Fauzia Tamanna contributed to this report.

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