Afghans wait in New Jersey ‘tent town’ to start a new life

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They call it Liberty Village, a tent city that grew almost overnight and now has a population of over half the cities in New Jersey.

It fills a large field at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a military installation in central New Jersey where approximately 8,500 Afghans temporarily live, displaced by the longest war in US history.

The New Jersey base is one of eight in the United States where tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated from Kabul in a frenzied stampede last month are accommodated as health and safety checks are completed and vaccinations against various diseases take hold.

The newcomers will eventually be transferred to communities across the country as part of one of the largest US resettlement efforts in decades. About 3,000 are expected to find permanent homes in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

For now, most of them are just waiting to take the next step in their odyssey.

Families on the base live in huge air-conditioned tents that can each hold up to 1,000 people, said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who recently toured the base with Senator Cory Booker, his Democratic colleague from the State.

Mr Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the end goal was for around 250 people to leave the base per week.

Some evacuees can stay on base and in limbo for up to a year, according to a military report that assessed everything from the expected increase in the use of sewage and generators there to how the population increase may affect an endangered bat species that lives in the area. .

Aid organizations have been preparing for weeks to respond to what they predict will be an extraordinary demand for apartments, English classes and placement services once families start to leave the base in greater numbers.

Welcome Home Jersey City, a non-profit relocation agency, has set up temporary accommodation in a parsonage and is preparing to move a family of six to a three-bedroom apartment next week. A local dentist volunteered to pay the family’s rent for a year, said Alain Mentha, director of Jersey City-based Welcome Home.

Mr. Mentha’s group also anticipates the arrival of another family in early October.

“This net,” he said, “will start to turn into a constant flow of needs. “

The large military base southeast of Trenton has experience hosting refugees. In 1999, around 4,000 former residents of Kosovo took refuge there after fleeing fighting in the Balkans.

Scott Timberman, the mayor of Wrightstown, a small borough at one end of the base, which stretches 20 miles from west to east, said there was no outward sign of a major relocation effort was going on next.

“We didn’t hear anything, we didn’t see them,” Mr. Timberman said of the base’s new residents. “Nothing special.”

Sikandar Khan, the director of Global Emergency Response and Assistance, a Paterson nonprofit, delivered supplies and entertained the Afghans on base.

Town hall-style meetings are held regularly at the camp, which has been divided into three villages. Each village has its own mayor and deputy mayor, said Khan, who said he spent a year working as a private contractor to help US special forces in southern Afghanistan and spoke fluent in Pashto.

Last Sunday, he said, his all-volunteer aid group hosted a five-hour dance party at the base with a DJ who performed music in English, Dari and Pashto. On Friday evening, the group hosted an outdoor barbecue for 10,000 Afghans and military officials stocked with 6,000 pounds of grilled lamb, beef and chicken.

“This is part of our morale boosting campaign,” Khan said. “Play music. Let them smell the food.

“These are people who have taken quite a journey to get here,” he added of the Afghans, many of whom helped the United States during the war and were evacuated when the Taliban took over. their country, just before the departure of American troops before an August 31 deadline set by President Biden.

Journalists were not allowed to enter the base. But workers from several non-governmental aid agencies are there on a daily basis. The New Jersey Departments of Health and Military Affairs also provided support as part of a task force established by Governor Philip D. Murphy.

Children spend their time playing football or volleyball and making crafts, visitors said. Some adults participate in language courses. A tent serves as a mosque, with sections for men and women to worship separately.

“What I felt as I walked around was a feeling of gratitude,” Mr. Menendez said.

Three resettlement agencies will be tasked with working with smaller community organizations to find permanent housing in New Jersey for about 535 people, aides to Mr Murphy said.

“Overall, we’ve only had a wave of real support,” said Avigail Ziv, executive director for New York and New Jersey at one of the resettlement agencies, the International Rescue Committee. Interfaith RISE in Highland Park and Church World Service in Jersey City will also help resettle newly arrived Afghans.

Donations of clothing and diapers and offers of translation services have poured in. An intake form created to handle the overwhelming level of interest expressed by potential volunteers indicates that grassroots donations are “at full capacity” and that no further can be accepted.

But the need for specific goods remains. Mr Khan said he was recently asked for suitcases and blankets as well as five barber chairs to accommodate the thousands of people having their hair cut. Gift cards that can be used to buy cigarettes on the basis are coveted, he added, as a lot of the men there are now addicted to nicotine.

Finding suitable and affordable housing for the unemployed or undocumented is perhaps the greatest looming challenge, several resettlement officials have said.

“We cannot do it alone,” Ms. Ziv said. “We really need the support of the community.

The affordable housing market is already severely limited and competition for apartments among tenants displaced during the pandemic – as well as those in need of temporary housing after the deadly September 1 storm that flooded the region – is intense.

J. Christian Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, a large and diverse city where the International Rescue Committee has offices, asked the group not to resettle the Afghans there because the authorities were still looking for accommodation for 400 residents who had to evacuate after Hurricane Ida.

“Although we would like to welcome them”, Mr Bollwage wrote on Twitter, “now is not the best choice.”

Liesa Watson and her husband, Nader Rezai, own a rental property for two families near Journal Square in Jersey City. When Ms Watson heard about the arrival of Afghans at the military base, she told Welcome Home that she had three bedroom accommodation and would be willing to rent it out at a price slightly lower than the market rate.

Her husband, a real estate agent, arrived in the United States from Iran as a child, and she said the couple were sympathetic to the struggle of new immigrants.

“I see something that I can do something about,” she said. “I was like, ‘Let me put my toe in the water’. “

The Afghan family who move into the apartment have four children aged 5 to 14, all of whom speak English. They arrived in the United States on August 23 after a week-long trip that took them through Bahrain and Bulgaria, according to the father of the children, 37, who spoke on condition of anonymity by concern for the safety of loved ones who are still alive. in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

It is a banker who said to have worked indirectly with American agencies; his wife is a teacher. They are eager, he said, to get the clearance they need to start looking for permanent work.

“There will clearly be open doors for many of these newcomers,” Menendez said.



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