Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy await their chance at the American dream
Afghan women and children learn English words during a morning class at Fort McCoy, Wis., September 28, 2021. (Zubair Babakarkhail / Stars and St)
FORT MCCOY, Wisconsin – When Parwana needed diapers for her sons, she went to the Red Cross station in Fort McCoy in search of help.
But the 25-year-old Afghan evacuee, who arrived days after a chaotic escape from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, did not speak English. She had to mime with her hands to explain what she needed.
These days, Parwana takes English lessons for two hours a day with other Afghan women at Fort McCoy.
“Now I can talk a bit,” she said, adding that her husband is also taking classes.
Like many of the roughly 50,000 people evacuated at eight bases across America, she doesn’t know when she will be allowed to begin her new life. But while Parwana waits, she spends her time trying to improve her outlook.
Women seem more interested in learning English than men, said Sabira Madadi, an evacuee who volunteered to translate in class for the American teacher.
“Here in a refugee camp, women are trying to learn more, to make their voices heard and to be equal to the men in this community,” she said.
Nilofar, who worked as a police officer before fleeing Kabul, said so far she has learned the names of different foods as well as how to greet people and how to introduce themselves.
“We should learn the language, because I’ll be like a mute if I get out of this base and can’t speak basic English,” she said in Dari.
The approximately 13,000 evacuees currently at Fort McCoy will remain there until they complete a long list of tasks, including getting vaccinated and receiving documents to enable them to work.
After completing their administrative duties, evacuees should be connected with resettlement agencies and sponsors to help them make the transition to life in America.
In addition to the opportunities to learn English, refugees can find other ways to endure the long wait at Fort McCoy.
The expansive base has plenty of room for long walks, said Hashima Shaheer, who escaped with her sister.
Other Afghans at the base spend the time playing football and cricket and flying kites. Sometimes there are movie nights and a sewing center opens for evacuees to make clothes, said Zach Mott, spokesperson for Task Force McCoy.
The US base soldiers sometimes play with the children by taking them on back walks. And there are Internet hotspots where people can contact their loved ones.
While most Afghans described generally positive experiences, there were problems. Two Afghan men were recently arrested at the base, one charged with sex crimes against a minor and the other with assaulting his wife, the justice ministry said.
Fort McCoy also had one of six cases of measles among evacuees, a Wisconsin Public Radio report said on Monday.
Some evacuees from the base said they had to wear the same clothes every day for weeks, due to their luggage being lost when traveling from their previous location at a base in Germany to America.
Deliveries of lost baggage have already started and the US government has set up a website to help people locate their bags, said Cheryl Phillips, director of public affairs for Task Force McCoy.
Large numbers of Afghan refugees will soon be leaving Fort McCoy, federal official Skye Justice told The Associated Press last week.
But some Afghans said they were less certain. After three weeks at the base, Mohammad Rahim said he had not had any of the interviews he needed.
Still, waiting in a safe base in America is better than living in fear of the Taliban, said Rahim, who said he worked with the Americans for 11 years.
“No worries if the wait is longer,” Rahim said. “Comparing life now with those three days that I lived under the Taliban, it’s like those three days were three years, and those three weeks that I spent here were like three hours. “