FORT BLISS -- From a helicopter high above the desert landscape dotted with scrub brush, row after row of large white tents stand out against the golden brown terrain.
Each tent can house up to 100 “guests” as the Army refers to the Afghan evacuees. About 10,000 people from Afghanistan are living at Fort Bliss, one of eight army installations temporarily housing the evacuees.
In a matter of a three weeks, Fort Bliss transformed a 1960s era training camp with sleeping quarters for 1800 soldiers into a massive operation
The army calls it “Doña Ana Village” named for the county where it’s located. The village concept also reflects a shift from caring for immediate needs of the evacuees.
“Operation Allies Welcome has evolved very quickly,” said Fort Bliss Commanding General Sean Bernabe. “As soon as we hit the ability to house ten thousand our priority shifted then to improving quality of life in every way possible for our guests,” said Bernabe.
He spoke during a press conference before the tour of the facility September 10th arranged for a small group of journalists. There is religious support, a community center and soccer field.
About 80 flights have arrived at Fort Bliss filled with evacuees. All go through security vetting before stepping foot on U.S. soil according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The new arrivals got a warm welcome as they deplaned. The first flight arrived August 21st.“I was there. I can confirm there was not a dry eye in the room,” said Gen. Bernabe.
At the massive camp, Col. Mike Wagner, 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, explained the process for new arrivals following the welcome there’s a briefing in Dari or Pashto.
“We’ll give them a series of instructions. We’ll start out with a map that shows them where they are in the United States so they’ll know where they just landed,” Wagner said.
While at Fort Bliss, the refugees get help with the complicated immigration process, applying for a work permit and medical screening that includes a COVID-19 test and vaccinations.
“That’s one of the mandatory vaccines that’s part of the immigration processing for them,” Wagner said.
All go through security vetting before stepping foot on U.S. soil according to the Department of Homeland Security. Most of those at Fort Bliss are families. Nearly 40 percent are children. Four women have delivered babies since arriving. The Red Cross, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee are present at the village and provide additional support for the families including play areas for children.
Each enormous tent can house up to 100 “guests” as the Army refers to the Afghan evacuees. There’s air conditioning and heating and cloth privacy partitions for individual families.
A tent that serves as a donation warehouse was filled with supplies for the evacuees “This is a place where thanks to the generosity of the American people and our corporate donors they were able to get some of the basics that they need to continue to survive,” he explained.
The supplies include diapers, personal hygiene products and clothes sorted into packages by gender and size and age. “A lot of them are coming with just the clothes they have on their backs and what they were able to escape with” Wagner said.
Officials did not allow reporters on the tour to interview any of the Afghan evacuees staying at Fort Bliss citing privacy concerns.
During the tour while walking from the tent filled with donated items to a dining hall, playful little boys ran outside. At a dining tent, Col. James Brady, Garrison Commander, explained the operation.
“In total we’ll have four dining facilities and each dining facility has the capacity to feed 2500 people every day,” said Brady. Halal meals are among the offerings. “Halal meals are culturally appropriate, don’t have pork, heavy with rice, vegetables and fruit,” Brady explained.
Inside one of the dining tents, serious women in head scarfs balanced stacks to-go containers with food. Their children carried multiple cans of Coca-Cola. A tall, middle-aged man wearing a traditional tunic over loose pants, took in the crowd, deep in thought, far from home.
A Department of Homeland Security representative said the goal is to move people out as quickly as possible but acknowledged resettlement agencies usually don’t see such a large number of refugees arrive at one time.
About 130 individuals have completed the initial process at Fort Bliss and are now waiting to find out in which city they will begin their new lives.
Those with family with can choose where they want to go. Some have other close connections, including friendships they formed with members of the U.S. military while working as translators or doing other jobs during the war in Afghanistan.
Other refugees will be assigned places based on their needs. “A lot of people had an undignified exit in the chaos of the evacuation. We’re hoping to give them a very dignified entry into their new lives in the United States,” explained a state department representative during the tour.