A major effort is underway at Fort Bliss to support the growing numbers of refugees arriving from Afghanistan, and some local groups are now asking the El Paso community to help.
“As we always do, El Paso is chomping at the bit to help. I have fielded calls, texts, messages from people who have asked ‘How can I help?’” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said during a press conference last week, following her visit to the site.
But what is the best way for El Pasoans to show support for Afghan refugees in the Borderland? As Fort Bliss has rapidly expanded its infrastructure to host Afghan refugees, so too is infrastructure expanding to ensure that the Afghan families have all the resources they need for the resettlement process. Below is a breakdown of what you need to know for welcoming Afghan refugees into the El Paso area.
The journey from Afghanistan to the border
Following the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, U.S. military flights evacuated Afghan allies from the south central Asian country, amounting to the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in United States history, the Department of Defense announced Monday. More than 123,000 people were evacuated, including more than 73,500 Afghans and other third country nationals.
Approximately 4,300 Afghan refugees have already arrived at Fort Bliss as of Wednesday morning, CBS News reported. Plans are underway to expand the capacity of the base to house up to 10,000 people from Afghanistan as they complete the process of finalizing special immigrant visas or other legal status for resettling in the United States.
The ramp up of capacity of the Doña Ana Range Complex, where Afghans are being housed, has been moving “like gangbusters,” said Anna Hey, deputy executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. She has visited the site four times since Afghan refugees began arriving and on every subsequent visit, she said, the site has been exponentially larger.
“It was buzzing, buzzing with people every time I’ve gone out there,” she said.
Although some lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R- Texas, have voiced concerns about Afghan refugees not being sufficiently vetted, most officials have repeatedly emphasized how extensive the screening process to gain entry to the United States is. The vetting includes “biometric and biographic security screenings conducted by our intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals,” a White House official said during a recent press call.
How to donate and volunteer to support Afghan refugees
At the Armed Services YMCA of El Paso on Tuesday, a flurry of activity took place near a pile of bags and boxes as volunteers sort through donations bound for Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss.
“It’s a way to give back,” said Tiffany Eubanks, who drove from Colorado to El Paso with her husband and two sons to help the Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss. “I think it’s good morals to teach the boys,” she said.
The ASYMCA is the primary organization facilitating donations for Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss, and it is currently seeking donations and volunteers to help sort through them.
“What we’re doing here is we collect donations, we put out information about what’s needed up at the site, we process (the donations), separate them and store them for a brief amount of time — we have a limited storage capacity,” said George Elsaesser, the executive director of ASYMCA El Paso.
He said the best way to get information about donation needs is through ASYMCA’s Facebook page. They are currently in need of donations of clothing items in all sizes, shoes in all sizes, a range of personal hygiene products, including feminine hygiene products and baby products, and games and art supplies. A current list of requested items to donate is available on ASYMCA’s Facebook page, and that list will be updated as needs change.
There also is an Amazon wishlist for those who would like to order new items for the Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss. Although donation dumping — leaving donations when the ASYMCA is not attended — is not allowed, walk-in donations can be dropped off at the ASYMCA Lodge at 7060 Comington St. in El Paso Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Elsaesser urged El Pasoans who want to donate to stick to the list of requested items, and to organize the items by category in order to lessen the work for volunteers.
Increasing the number of volunteers is also an immediate priority, he said.
El Pasoans can sign up to volunteer by emailing Betty Ramirez at email@example.com, or by sending a message to the ASYMCA- El Paso Facebook page.
“They can come and serve an hour, two hours, and they’ll be out there sorting, collecting, bringing in donations. Or they can be on what I call a volunteer alert roster,” Elsaesser said.
“I sent out an alert to the volunteers we had, they showed up, the truck came in — it took us thirty minutes to unload it and they were off,” he said.
What we know about the Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss
The Afghan refugees arriving at Fort Bliss are not a monolithic group and have a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences. But there are common threads to the experience of those who are currently being housed at the Doña Ana Range Complex on Fort Bliss Army Base north of El Paso, said Mustafa Babak, co-founder and board member of the Afghan-American Foundation.
“They are in a constant state of shock. Shock not only that their country changed overnight — from a very open-minded country … to an extremely intolerant (country). They also lost homes, everything that they lived for overnight,” he said.
Babak, who is originally from Afghanistan but has lived in the United States for the past 10 years, emphasized the trauma and stress of leaving home under those conditions.
“Every single person that you see in El Paso in the military camp, they left family members, loved ones, friends, a home, car, belongings, and just left with one backpack,” he said.
Babak said that culture shock will be a challenge for many of the Afghan refugees as they adapt to life in the United States, and emphasized the diversity among those arriving at U.S. military bases like Fort Bliss. Some will be more traditional than others, some will have greater English language familiarity or more advanced educational background than others, some will have more familiarity with life in Western countries, while for others, this will all be new.
But Babak said Texans and Afghans may have more in common than one would assume.
“Afghans are a very proud people and so are Texans, right? Very proud of where they come from, extremely hospitable,” he said.
Legal services and other ways to help
Although there is not a current request out for volunteer immigration attorneys to assist Afghans at Fort Bliss, Hey said that DMRS is trying to get a legal orientation program at Fort Bliss, and may need help from immigration attorneys on a volunteer basis.
“We’re trying to put together the best way to orient the people who have arrived, given their current status,” she said.
Hey said that if immigration attorneys would be interested in volunteering their time to help Afghan refugees, they should follow DMRS on Facebook and send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association has also been sharing information for immigration lawyers who would like to help Afghans in need of legal services.
The Afghan-American Foundation is also seeking Dari, Farsi and Pashto interpreters in the El Paso area, as well as Afghan-American foster parents for unaccompanied minors. Although there is no confirmation that unaccompanied Afghan minors have arrived at Fort Bliss, CBS reported that a small number of unaccompanied refugee children had begun to arrive in the United States from Afghanistan.
Another way to help Afghans who have not yet left or are in a third country is by donating frequent flier miles to Miles4Migrants, a nonprofit that helps refugees and asylum-seekers travel who cannot afford airfare.
“These are new Americans who have served as allies in Afghanistan, and they are going through a lot of stress, their lives have changed,” Babak said.
“It’s up to us as Americans to open up our doors to them, and be as hospitable as we can so they can find a new home and a new life,” he said.
Cover photo: George Elsaesser shows the room where donations for Afghan refugees are being temporarily stored at the Army Services YMCA of El Paso. (René Kladzyk/ El Paso Matters)