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Defense Department doubles the number of Afghan refugees slated for Fort Bliss, other military bases

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The total capacity for Afghan refugees who will be temporarily housed at Fort Bliss and other U.S. military bases will increase to 50,000, Col. Martin L. O’Donnell of the United States Army North confirmed Tuesday. 

That is twice the previous goal of 25,000 that Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby specified during a press briefing on Monday.

“The Secretary of Defense has authorized Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; Fort Bliss, Texas; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to provide temporary housing and support for up to 50,000 at-risk Afghans,” O’Donnell said in an email to El Paso Matters. 

Soldiers assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, along with the American Red Cross, distribute toys, clothes, towels and other amenities to Afghan refugees at Doña Ana Housing Area at Fort Bliss on Aug. 22, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elijah Ingram)

The announcement comes as the U.S. noncombatant evacuation operation from Afghanistan has ramped up considerably in recent days: President Biden announced Tuesday that more than 70,000 people — including U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans — had been evacuated from the country so far. 

Refugees began arriving at Fort Bliss last weekend, and U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, confirmed Monday that 650 Afghan refugees had arrived on base as of Saturday. Officials haven’t said how many Afghans may end up living temporarily at Fort Bliss.

Area photo of the progression of Dona Ana Housing Area at Fort Bliss on Aug. 22, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elijah Ingram)

At Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Range Complex, located 30 miles north of El Paso in New Mexico, efforts are underway to expand capacity while staff cares for the growing numbers of Afghans housed there. 

“Every day we’re trying to build not only additional capability to house more Afghans, but also additional levels of comfort,” O’Donnell said. 

Soldiers assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss prepare to provide medical aid to passengers aboard the first flight of Afghan refugees from Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 21, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Steven Modugno)

He said the Department of Defense provides lodging and basic services to the Afghans at Fort Bliss, and that they are currently working on establishing recreational activities. He also confirmed that the State Department is working with community organizations to provide orientation and guidance on the resettlement process to the refugees. 

“A number of governmental agencies, including the Department of State, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, and non-governmental organizations, including the American Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, International Organization for Migration and others, are contributing to this effort,” he said. 

Lt. Col. Allie Payne, a Fort Bliss spokesperson, said the post has 1,000 soldiers and civilians dedicated to the Afghan relief effort.

“Within the Doña Ana housing area we have provided housing area space by family unit, bathrooms, showers, a dining facility with regular and appropriate meals, and on site Role 1 medical treatment and health screening. There are items from the Red Cross being provided to guests and an (Army Air Force Exchange Store) shopette available to purchase items,” Payne said Wednesday. “The site is being improved every day and services expanded. There are recreation items for children such as soccer balls and basketballs. Laundry will begin in the next 24-48 hours. The site continues to improve everyday with many services past basic-needs to greatest extent.”

This story has been updated with a comment from Fort Bliss.

Cover photo: The living area for Afghan refugees at Doña Ana Housing Area at Fort Bliss on Aug. 22, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elijah Ingram)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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