Thousands of Afghan refugees expected at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst military base

By: - August 24, 2021 5:02 pm

The International Refugee Assistance Project last week estimated that about 100,000 Afghans were seeking evacuation to the U.S. (Photo by Handout/Bundeswehr via Getty Images)

Thousands of refugees fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan will begin arriving this week at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, Biden administration officials said in a press briefing Tuesday afternoon.

At least 25,000 refugees will be sheltered at the Burlington County military base and three other facilities — Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Lee in Virginia, and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin — until resettlement agencies can place them in more permanent homes.

One official described the evacuation of refugees — which began last week after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in advance of the withdrawal of American troops on Aug. 31 — as one of the biggest airlifts in U.S. history.

The refugees will undergo security screenings before they enter the United States through the Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., administration officials said. All will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and be offered vaccines. They’ll also get full medical screenings, including primary and specialty care and mental health services, as well as transportation support to wherever they resettle, officials said.

Officials declined to specify how long refugees might stay in tents now being set up at the base, saying only that the base is not intended to house them for “months.”

That concerns many immigration advocates, who say any stay at a base should be brief.

Government facilities holding migrant children and other immigrants have been plagued by reports of crowding and inhumane conditions, so sheltering refugees in government facilities should be a last resort, said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

“A state like New Jersey has communities ready to welcome people in,” Torres said. “People are much more successful in advocating for themselves when they’re in the care of their own community. We are ready to partner with state and local governments to make that happen.”

“A mad scramble”

Advocates now are preparing for a tide of refugees that they’re not sure will be a trickle or a tsunami.

Anyone who wants to help with Afghan refugee resettlement will be most impactful by giving money, supporters say.

“With money, we can pay for a security deposit and a few months rent on an apartment. We can provide all kinds of support with money,” said Alain Mentha of Welcome Home Jersey City.

Amy Torres of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, recommends researching first. “When you’re spending money, spend it in the right place — make sure you give to an institution with deep, earned trust and a track record with these communities,” she said.

Refugees will also need housing, basic necessities like clothing and household items, tools like computers, and transportation like bicycles. Advocates suggest reaching out to organizations directly to ensure you donate what they need. Some of those working in New Jersey to help Afghan refugees settle are:

The International Rescue Committee


Welcome Home Jersey City

The Council on American-Islamic Relations of New Jersey

The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice

It’s a daunting and sometimes unfamiliar task for many. Trump administration cuts to the nation’s refugee resettlement system have crippled the country’s ability to respond to crises like the one unfolding now in Afghanistan, immigration advocates say, leaving community groups scrambling to fill the gap.

Alain Mentha is executive director of Welcome Home Jersey City, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that provides support to refugees and asylum seekers.

“When we started, all we did was clean an apartment, fill it with furniture, meet people at the airport, and show them the neighborhood,” Mentha said. “But now what we’re doing is so different and so much more. There’s a lot to learn for those of us who want to help. It feels like a mad scramble.”

Helping involves everything from lining up housing and life’s basic necessities, to calling for advocacy to ensure refugees settle quickly and safely, to navigating complex immigration rules. Many of the Afghan refugees who will arrive soon, for example, fall under a special status created for foreigners who worked for U.S. troops deployed to other countries, thereby becoming targets for reprisal in their homeland.

Welcome Home Jersey City set up transitional housing in a church rectory for refugee families from Afghanistan.

Welcome Home Jersey City set up transitional housing for families in a church rectory, which they hope will be only a pitstop on the way to permanent housing. But Mentha has found that the hunt for housing is equally a hunt for compassionate landlords with good will to spare.

“We want to move them out as soon as we’re able to get a lease, but it’s hard to get a lease without a Social Security number, let alone a credit history or pay stubs or anything a normal landlord would ask for,” Mentha said.

Mentha already has fielded offers from do-gooders offering spare rooms, translation services, and other things to help refugees.

Help, though, isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. Privacy and security, for example, are considerations that must be weighed. And Mentha recounted how, in his early days of working with immigrants, he wasn’t aware how something as automatic to Americans as a handshake could be unwanted or even offensive to people of other cultures. That’s why he planned to attend a “cultural competencies” training Tuesday afternoon the Afghan-American Foundation organized for humanitarian workers helping refugees.

For the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New Jersey (CAIR-NJ), helping Afghan refugees means mobilizing the state’s mosques. There are over 150 that serve about 300,000 Muslims across the state, said Selaedin Maksut, the group’s executive director. CAIR-NJ has asked them to gather goods and scout out housing possibilities for refugees, Maksut said. CAIR-NJ also offers free legal aid — and will do so for any refugees who need it, he said.

The group also stands ready to address and fight any xenophobia and Islamophobia that might accompany Afghans’ arrival here, he said. Maksut applauded Gov. Phil Murphy for his recent “very welcoming and progressive” letter to President Biden, in which the governor wrote that “accepting these refugee honors the sacrifice made by veterans in the war in Afghanistan — too many of whom died working towards the same goal sought by these refugees: stability and peace.”

The International Refugee Assistance Project last week estimated that about 100,000 Afghans were seeking evacuation to the United States, according to the Associated Press.

“This is all a many-faceted dilemma and challenge, and I’m sure the Biden folks have their hands full right now,” Mentha said.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.