BLACKSTONE – Mayor Billy Coleburn says the town was told that the roughly 5,700 Afghan refugees being brought to its military base, Fort Pickett, would only be there temporarily.
Now, they’ve been there for six weeks. And, despite the stir their presence has caused, very few have seen them.
“What’s happening is, the week before they arrived, (Democratic U.S. Senator) Mark Warner was here and said, ‘It’ll be 3-5 days.’ He was making a campaign stop, and he said, without prodding from the audience, he said this will be only a way station, you’re not going to have a long-standing settlement.”
Coleburn paused. “Of course he was using information coming from above him.”
Most people in town understand, according to Coleburn; while there are some who distrust or just don’t like the evacuees, far more people simply feel sorry for them, and believe that the government needs to be more forthright about what’s going on.
Fort Pickett is a former U.S. Army base in Nottoway County that’s now the home base for the Virginia National Guard. Nearby Blackstone, which relies on income from Fort Pickett’s use, has a population of about 3,600.
“Our fortune is tied to Fort Pickett,” Coleburn said. The base is used by various military branches for intensive training to the tune of 110,000 troops a year, he said. The fort employs local civilians, and soldiers staying there for training usually come into town to shop, eat and drink, and are a source of revenue. The presence of evacuees is interrupting this dynamic.
“The Department of Homeland Security and the army have come in and pretty much taken over,” said Coleburn of Fort Pickett. “This is not my baby. I’m not in control, I’m not in command, but it has worked me to death more than anything.” He does, he says, want to “stop the fear mongering.”
There was some concern that the refugees’ presence was causing shortages of goods at Walmart; but it soon became known the problem was a widespread supply chain issue and not a localized one. Now, water, diapers and other supplies are shipped directly to Fort Pickett from a Walmart distribution center and doesn’t disrupt wares’ availability at the store.
Rumors are flying in some quarters. “I heard six texts that 60 male evacuees had gone into the woods and were making weapons to come into Blackstone,” he said. “It turned out to be false, but the texts came from six different people who usually don’t talk to me.”
The Virginia Department of Health has confirmed an outbreak of measles on Virginia military bases hosting refugees; according to a Facebook post by David Whitus, mayor of nearby town Farmville, only one case was confirmed at Fort Pickett — a child who was taken to Richmond for treatment.
“We’ve had a backup because they’re trying to get everyone vaccinated,” Coleburn said. “They’re committing 48 hours to vaccinating everyone against measles, mumps, rubella and COVID.”
Coleburn emphasized that the evacuees are free and not criminals, but it won’t necessarily take much for locals’ opinions to take a negative slant. “The community’s coming together but there’s a growing faction that are mad, and there’s some degree of mistrust.
“The locals are panicking, but, for example, this is what hurt things: one of the evacuees stole a car on the base and was driving out the main gate at night two weeks ago today. He was arrested without incident,” Coleburn said. “I’ve seen good mugshots and bad mugshots, and if you’re suspicious of Middle Eastern males, it was not a good mugshot.”
The mugshot in question, of a 25-year-old man named Muhamed Haroon Bahaduri, ran in the Courier-Record.
(It’s worth noting that Coleburn is not only the mayor of Blackstone but the editor of the Courier-Record, Blackstone’s local paper, as well, which was founded by his family decades ago. He refers to this as “the elephant in the room.”
(That this is a conflict of interest almost goes without saying, but it’s also emblematic of a certain sort of small, rural town, where a miniscule number of civic-minded Type-A people wear several hats at once. If anyone minds this, they don’t bring it up when his name is mentioned. Perhaps because when he talks, it’s with the excitable urgency and colorful sense of expression that usually gets a person labeled as “a big character.”)
Nobody knew why he did it, and the government gave no reason, handling it internally, Coleburn said.
He sees this as an example of government mismanagement through keeping information away from the public. “This is a human being!” he said. “Was he tired? What was going on? The government wants to hide it! You and I know it doesn’t take much for distrust to turn into paranoia. The feds don’t understand that if you just tell people basically what’s going on, they’ll work with you.”
Additionally, another vehicle was stolen and found abandoned after a night’s worth of riding around, “but nobody knows who did it.”
Rumors of measles were addressed by the base, saying that one child was confirmed to have it, and had been taken to a hospital in Richmond. The Virginia Department of Health later confirmed that there were five cases among Afghan evacuees in the state, and were working to contact any who may have been exposed to measles
Blackstone has no hotels, Coleburn said, but nearby communities like Farmville do and government employees brought in to help at Fort Pickett “have booked rooms for six months and even up to a year. That tells me it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
The prevailing sentiment among some locals seems to be cautious neutrality.
Has having the evacuees at Fort Pickett has made things worse? “It would be a hard comparison because the last two years have been pretty much crazy,” laughed Diana Wilkes-Mitchell, co-owner of Mitchell’s Restaurant and Lounge and an Army veteran.
Business has slowed, but, she said, “It could just be the time of the year. I don’t know. Things are already so abnormal because of COVID. I want to say it’s slower for sure. I think people working at Fort Pickett have had their job dynamics change and so the lunch crowd is smaller.”
The restaurant has been tapped to possibly go on the base to feed evacuees, Wilkes-Mitchell said, but she isn’t making a move without more information, which she feels is in short supply.
The staff at Mitchell’s is “95% female,” she said. “I would not know how to tell one of my 23-year-old waitresses how to be deferential to a man from a culture she doesn’t know in a way that he would appreciate. We’re open to feeding, we just need clear directives.”
She echoed Coleburn’s sentiment about the need for better communication. “I know there’s a lot of people in the community who are concerned, and I think nine-tenths of their concern is because of a lack of communications from the federal government.”
Retired Col. Greg Eanes used to run Fort Pickett; his interview was conducted by email. He served in Afghanistan.
“Hopefully, these refugees can transition and assimilate as U.S. citizens. It will not be easy for them or us and not without rough patches but overall, I think it can be done.” he said.
“As for the local response, he said, “I submit most people do see the refugee challenge as an opportunity to help… On the street I have not personally heard any negative comments, but I live in the western part of the County so I’m 16½ miles from Pickett.”
The majority of his remarks had to do with how bad an idea it was for the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan, both for those who helped the American military and for the U.S itself. “Afghanistan will once again become a base of operations for bad men bent on doing damage to Americans and American interests,” Eanes said.
Some had reservations but set them aside out of belief that they had important work to do helping the evacuees.
“Just with talking with people, the vibe pretty much is a mixture,” Shirverne Griffin said. A Baltimore native who moved to Blackstone about 27 years ago, she’s a member of Spring Hill Baptist Church, which takes up regular donations for the evacuees.
(She also comes across as a genuinely caring person; when asked a perfunctory “How are you today?” she trills back sweetly, “I’m fine dear. How are you?”)
As far as the evacuees go, “I felt sad, because I just felt for them to be snatched up from their homes, brought here someplace totally new without anything important except maybe your wife or your children, you’re put somewhere that’s not your regular comfort zone–I just really felt for them,” she said.
Griffin continued, “Some people feel the way that I do, and you know, some people have made some not kind remarks, and I think that’s out of confusion, not knowing, out of fear. Blackstone people are generally kind that I’ve run into. If they can help someone, they will.”
Spring Hill Baptist Church’s spiritual leader, Rev. Dr. Travis Warren, doesn’t live in Blackstone, but hasn’t noticed much difference in town since the evacuees came. He did feel compelled to help them out.
“Once the mayor said they were coming, the first thing that came to mind was these people have left their homes. Whatever we can do to make it a little easier, we should try.” Warren said his church’s mission is, “Impacting the community through the love of Jesus Christ,” a charge they take quite seriously.
The church’s donation request spawned a lot of local response and plenty beyond; monetary donations from Northern Virginia have come in; and, Warren said, “there were people from North Carolina driving up to drop things off. One lady drove three hours to drop off clothing.” She brought it in a truck packed so full it took Warren and three other men to unload it.
“In my eyes it’s been a tremendous success all the way around,” he said. Warren himself hasn’t visited the base but said that per his staff who went, the Afghan evacuees seemed “receptive” to help.
“It’s important to help our brothers and sisters in a time of need. I feel like if it was me, I’d want somebody to offer me help. I didn’t want to wait on the federal government to figure this out. I don’t want to wait on corporate America to figure this out.”
Despite his religious convictions, Warren says he had his reservations.
“I had some mixed feelings, simply because my son is in the military,” he said. “He was in Afghanistan during that rocket attack last year. It was on the news. In fact they were in a complete blackout in 24 hours so I had no way to reach him to know if he was OK.”
Warren felt that ultimately it was his duty to let faith take the lead: “But being a Christian, I set aside those feelings and do what’s right for mankind.”
The majority of Coleburn’s remarks were made at the five-week mark. At week six, there’s little else to remark upon. “No change,” he says. “Pause button still in effect.”
Shannon Watkins is a journalist and freelance writer who has won numerous Virginia Press Association awards for photography, features, news and column writing. A Tidewater native, she has lived and written in various parts of the state, and now calls Southwest Virginia her home.