Zainab Shayan. Courtesy of Karley Sirtoa of ICE.

Fort Pickett may be home to Afghan evacuees awaiting new homes, but they’re not idle while they’re on the base, and they’re being treated well, according to an Afghan couple who passed through it. 

While there, evacuees are given training, according to Ruhullah and Zainab Shayan, a married couple who were in the Afghan army and previously worked with U.S. forces in Kabul.

Ruhullah, 33 and Zainab, 28, spoke through a translator in a teleconference interview about their experiences. Despite not having a strong command of English (they speak Dari, one of Afhgan’s two major languages, the other being Pashto), they are media-savvy and have been interviewed by several news organs.

Ruhullah Shayan

The Shayans addressed Cardinal News from their living room in Tampa, Florida, where one or the other occasionally ducked away from the camera to tend to their children, 6 and 4, heard playing in the background. 

They said, “America is like a home for us. Everyone is very friendly and nice and caring. They cry for us, they’re with us.” So far, they said, they haven’t experienced any anti-Afghani sentiments and they “feel very safe here.”

Zaineb noted that she felt American soil is better for her, as a woman. She said being here “is much safer and more secure. [Back home] wasn’t the best, especially when it comes to respect for women. This is better than Afghanistan, where they were not giving value to women’s work. The only jobs were cleaning and housework,and there was not a safe work environment.” She described Afghanistan as a “male-dominated society.”

The Shayans got to America because they knew American military personnel who helped them, and even so, it took them six attempts over several days to get to the airport, a process in which they had to pass multiple Taliban checkpoints and risk being shot. The Shayans arrived at the Philadelphia airport on Oct. 13, were in New Jersey for a day and then came to Fort Pickett.

They left family behind, they said, and are hoping to make contact with them as soon as possible, as they settle into their new home country. But, despite this and a harrowing journey, they smiled frequently, and described life at Fort Pickett as peaceful.

They were recommended to stay on the base and provided with mass transit to and from various areas offering activities such as cultural orientation and cooking classes. The Shayans said they “found it really interesting to learn about America’s culture here,” especially holidays and the kinds of jobs they might find available. “We had a really good time.”

“The only thing that was really irritating and annoying was multiple families in a single place or in a trailer,” Ruhullah said. “There would be so many people in there.” Additionally, he noted that there was poor cellphone service. 

However, recreation of various sorts was also available. “We love to do all the sports events. There were a couple of sports events and we loved it when we would see people.” American volunteers would help out with the kids. 

“That is what shows Americans kindness, their sense of responsibility here for the kids,” Ruhullah said. 

The interview and data gathering took place in early December; but nothing has changed regarding the timeline, according to DHS Lead External Affairs Liaison Joseph Simon, who said in an email on Dec. 20, “There are no hard dates for resettling Afghans at the military bases. We will continue resettling our Afghan allies and their families as quickly, safely, and successfully as possible.”

He continued, “We anticipate that the length of time spent on bases overseas and in the United States will vary depending on completion of mandatory vaccinations and any other medical issues that arise; the screening and vetting process; and how long it takes to complete necessary administrative steps and provide work authorization. 

“Travel availability to their final destination and the absorptive capacity of our resettlement agency partners and local communities may also affect the amount of time people will spend on the base. We are working with resettlement agencies to ensure Afghans can reach their new communities as soon as possible”

Officials currently don’t have, or won’t share, a timeline for the resettlement of about 5,000 evacuees from Afghanistan from Blackstone’s Fort Pickett.

Map by Robert Lunsford

“We anticipate that the length of time spent on base will vary depending on arrival time at the base; the time necessary for mandatory vaccinations and any other medical issues that arise; and how long it takes to complete necessary administrative steps and provide work authorization,” said Karley Sirota, an external affairs officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Travel availability to their final destination and the absorptive capacity of our resettlement agency partners and local communities may also affect the amount of time people will spend on the base. We are working with resettlement agencies to ensure Afghans can reach their new communities as soon as possible,” she said.

More than 5,100 Afghans, American citizens, and lawful permanent residents have already been relocated to their new communities from Fort Pickett as of Dec. 7, according to a DHS spokesperson, who was not identified.

However, according to the DHS, there are still about 5,000 “Afghan guests” remaining. 

The spokesperson’s quotes were obtained by a chain of command that began, and came back through, a U.S. Immgration and Customs Enforcement agent working with Fort Pickett.

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, 4,032 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in Virginia, due to the efforts of various agencies.

(Note that VDSS uses the term “parolees,” which, according to the National Immigration Forum, is a flexible terms that is being used by the Biden administration under Operation Allies Refuge to denote “Afghans who may otherwise be eligible for either refugee or SIV status but have not yet completed their visa processing.”)

Broken down, this comes out to 346 evacuees resettled through the International Rescue Committee in Richmond and 306 through their Charlottesville office; 200 evacuees resettled through the Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Richmond’s office, 111 through its Roanoke office and 189 through its Newport News office; 619 resettled through the Catholic Charities of Arlington Diocese Migration and Refugee Services of Manassas and Fredericksburg; 635 resettled through the Lutheran Social Services’ Fairfax office, 652 through its Alexandria office and 455 through its Dale City office; 142 evacuees resettled through the Church World Services in Harrisonburg; and 377 resettled through the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Arlington. 

Good has questions about Fort Pickett

In mid-November, Rep. Bob Good fired off a series of questions to Brigadier General Richard Harrison about conditions at Fort Pickett, claiming he’d been told that evacuees were being given barracks for themselves, which forced soldiers to sleep outdoors in tents, that soldiers were denied hot meals and that female soldiers were not able to routinely access showers. 

The Department of Homeland Security spokesperson essentially acknowledged that while Good’s data was correct, the correct interpretation is different. Afghan evacuees are indeed being billeted in barracks as part of Homeland Security’s “Operation Allies Welcome,” but the soldiers sleeping outside are said to be part of a training exercise for deployment to the Horn of Africa.

“Task Force Dragon Soldiers were able to utilize the bulk of the 41,000 acres of maneuver training area at Fort Pickett to train on the wide range of necessary combat tasks,” said the DHS spokesperson. 

“The Task Force Red Dragon leadership, caring deeply for the well-being of their soldiers, put tremendous effort into planning logistical support for their pre-mobilization training.”

Which meant that the soldiers’ behavior had nothing to do with the evacuees or where they’re quartered, but with what the spokesperson referred to as a “‘train as you fight’” ethos preparing them for “austere” conditions ahead in their deployment. “While [the soldiers] were eating and sleeping in the field, they had access to heated tents, hot showers, portable latrines and handwashing stations,” the spokesperson continued.

And, regarding women participating in the exercise, “Appropriate accommodations were made to provide privacy for female soldiers at all facilities.”

Overall in the U.S., more than 35,000 people have been relocated from eight safe havens to new communities — along with Fort Pickett in Blackstone, these are Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Fort Bliss in Texas, McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, Fort Lee and the Marine base at Quantico, Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Camp Atterbury in Indiana.

Nearly 28,000 of the 35,000 were handled by resettlement agencies. The remaining number, approximately 7,000, were already American citizens, lawful permanent residents, SIV holders and Afghans with close ties to the U.S. who did not require the aid of resettlement agencies to find housing.

“As a reminder, all Afghans who have departed the safe havens were vetted prior to arrival and underwent additional screening at the Port of Entry, and they are required to receive critical vaccinations as a condition of their humanitarian parole,” the DHS spokesperson said. 

Nongovernmental organizations have partnered with the fort to offer several daily classes to evacuees, including English as a second language, trauma education, intro to driving, intro to preschool, benefits and parole status, U.S. laws rights and responsibilities, and others. 

Of those who remain at Fort Pickett, the population is currently 48% children under the age of 18 and 52% adults over the age of 18. The majority of them are together as families, with about 2,800 male and 2,200 female Afghan guests of all ages.

“Guest volunteers traditionally lean on basic learning models from Afghan school curriculums (ABCs, numbers, etc.), while our NGO partners use a combination of their own materials, those sourced via online websites, alongside games, and other interactive methods,” said the DHS spokesperson. 

Education for children leans on conversational teaching with visual aids provided through PowerPoint presentations.