CHANTILLY, Va. – Planeloads of Afghan refugees and Afghan Americans arrived in northern Virginia on Monday, their faces showing relief and exhaustion after being harassed by Taliban fighters on the way to the Kabul airport and, in some cases, going without much food for days.
After landing at Dulles International Airport, many of the families boarded buses ferrying them to the nearby Dulles Expo Center in Fairfax County, a 100,000-square-foot facility meant for business conventions that has been converted into a temporary shelter.
The families were waiting to be sent to military installations in the Washington region and elsewhere in the country – yet another leg on a journey that, for many, included waiting several days for a flight at Kabul’s crowded airport and then being held at a refugee site in Qatar.
A State Department spokesman said the United States is working to get as many American citizens and Afghan nationals at risk of Taliban reprisals out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Between Sunday morning and Monday morning, 10,400 people were evacuated from Kabul on military flights, and 5,900 people flew out on commercial airlines recruited by the United States for the effort, the spokesman said. They are expecting to evacuate several thousand more Afghan refugees and U.S. citizens in coming days.
“It was very difficult for us,” Walid Walizada said solemnly after leaving a processing area at Dulles Airport with his wife, Benazir, and their 1-year-old son. “In five days, we did not eat or sleep.”
Lifting up a pant leg to reveal a badly swollen foot, he added: “I had no shoes until today.”
Among those arriving were children who made the journey without their parents, presumably separated from them in the chaos around the Kabul airport, said Fouzi Afshari, an Afghan American activist who volunteered as an interpreter and translator at Dulles Airport and helped process the families.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on whether unaccompanied Afghan children were being admitted into the United States.
Afshari said she also interviewed a woman who had given birth at the Kabul airport and many people who had no documentation and were concerned about what that would mean.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said of the plight the refugees had faced. “It’s so beyond inhumane.”
Some of the refugees dressed in Western clothing, while others came in the traditional outfits they had on when they left their homes in Kabul.
Nearly all of them wore masks, a precaution against coronavirus infection. A federal Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said everyone is tested for the virus when they arrive and arrangements are made to isolate anyone who tests positive.
One young boy stepping off his bus stared wide-eyed at news reporters shouting questions at his parents in English.
“How does it feel to be in the U.S.?” a TV news reporter asked.
Most of the refugees ignored her. One man responded: “It feels great. We are finally safe.”
At Dulles Airport, Seliman Nwori, 31, said he was happy to be out of Afghanistan. But he still wore a look of concern after being told that his luggage had been lost.
“All of our documents are in there,” he said, not knowing how that problem would affect the chances he and his wife, Zuha, had of staying in the country.
Hanzalah Shinwari, 17, was among a group of Afghan U.S. citizens who were on the arriving flights.
The teenager, who lives in Haymarket, Va., said he had traveled to Kabul to visit friends and family.
Before he realized what was happening, he said, the U.S. military had pulled out and the Taliban was taking over province after province before sweeping into Kabul last week.
The day he was scheduled to leave, the airport was shut down.
Shinwari said he initially couldn’t get past the panicked crowds outside Kabul’s airport, then waited a day and a half in line to get in. When he finally made it through, he had to wait there for several days, sleeping alongside others anxious to get on a flight and watching one traumatized boy slapping his head in panic over and over.
“I lost hope several times,” he said at Dulles Airport, while standing next to his smiling father. “It was mayhem.”