Uprooted but Enduring

Listening to Newly Arriving Afghans at the Airport

October 18, 2021 by

You probably saw the violence and chaos in Kabul on your news feed last month. I was at Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC as Afghan refugees arrived in our country two weeks later, as part of the collaborative efforts to support their immediate needs. Listening to them, I heard stories of comfortable lives upended by escalating violence, disorder at the Kabul International Airport, weeks of waiting for flights to America from military bases in Europe and the Middle East, and the trans-Atlantic flight ending with hours of waiting on the tarmac here in the United States.

Save the Children was on the ground at Dulles. They are a nonprofit that provides children around the world a healthy start in life, opportunities to learn, and protection from harm. Their emergency response team takes volunteers like myself into areas of crisis to support children and families’ unique needs. On this response, we worked for 18 days, first at the airport where people disembarked, giving moms resources for their babies, and then at the Dulles Expo Center, providing a safe place for their kids to play and express themselves while families sheltered and figured out next steps.

dullesundertheeave1235970Dulles Under the Eave

About five planes flew in every day. Some days, the newly arriving refugees were debilitated by anguish and exhaustion. On these days, I witnessed the upsetting sight of mothers who were so burned out that they were beyond caring for their own children. We had the resources they needed, but they weren’t looking for them. We cut lines and interrupted screening sessions to hand them supplies for their babies. Some kids were sick, and a lot of babies were dehydrated. I’ve never seen diaper rash so bad. A disproportionately high number of babies had been born at the military bases in Qatar, Germany, and Spain. I wondered at the stress their mothers had undergone, leaving Kabul amidst chaos and violence and packed onto cargo planes with nothing ahead of them but the unknown.

At the Dulles Expo Center, parents were grateful for a safe place to send their children while they completed paperwork or, if they had time, got some sleep for the first time in days. It was the bright spot at the shelter, vibrating with shouts and jump ropes and hula hoops. Even with their lives and families ripped apart, the kids saw a chance to be kids for a few moments and took full advantage.

One day, there was a man doubled over in pain just across from our play area. I hadn’t realized it, but the woman I was talking to that moment was his sister-in-law. She confided that he was suffering from acute depression. She said the medics had assessed him and suspected a stress-induced cardiac event resembling a heart attack. As he was wheeled out to an ambulance, she described how in the past two weeks he and his family went from being successful, financially secure and owning an estate, to now living life in the balance. She said since their departure from Kabul, they had averaged two hours of sleep a night. With a wife and son to provide for, this prosperous man was reduced to homelessness in the space of days, and it shattered him.

Despite their plight, these newly arriving families were kind, grateful and enduring. Their children were a lot like your children, only probably now mature beyond their years. They’re children who have known nothing but conflict their entire lives, and now unsure of what the future may hold. I hope for them, this is a step toward a brighter future.

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