ALAMOGORDO, New Mexico — For the first time, Holloman Air Force Base this month invited reporters to tour the village that thousands of Afghan refugees call their temporary home.
“I’d actually say that the majority of those in the village have risked more for American security than the vast majority of Americans have," admitted Brig. Gen. Dan Gabrielli, the 'Task Force Holloman' commander.
Since the end of August, about 7,100 refugees have sought shelter at Aman Omid Village. The camp has a capacity to house 5,000 people and is currently about 90% full, officials told ABC-7.
‘Operation Allies Welcome’ is a Department of Homeland Security initiative to shelter at least 50,000 Afghan refugees at bases across the United States, including Fort Bliss and Holloman Air Force Base.
Arrival in New Mexico
Village leaders say the first flight of refugees arrived on Aug. 31st and the last flight arrived on Oct. 27th. Half of the 'guests' living at the base are children.
"We are this generation's Ellis Island," said Col. Curt Velasquez, the "governor" of 'Aman Omid Village.'
Refugees consist of humanitarian workers, journalists and human rights defenders, said Carrie Denver, the U.S. Department of State lead for 'Operation Allies Welcome,"
"These Afghan guests who are here: they worked alongside us," Denver said.
At the beginning of the mission, 900 airmen worked to get the camp up and running. Now, that number has dwindled to about 650 deployed service members working at Aman Omid Village.
Some refugees arrived with money to purchase a new suitcase, others “literally came here from Afghanistan with the clothes on their back," Velasquez said.
The Afghan children at Aman Omid Village were incredibly bright and social! An 11-year-old on Holloman Air Force Base couldn't wait to practice her English. This little girl insisted on holding my hand ❤️ STORY: https://t.co/QnZbA0sNGj pic.twitter.com/6ICNvWp9S2— Kate Bieri (@KateBieri) November 5, 2021
'Aman Omid' translates to 'peace and hope.' In the camp, which is about one square mile, refugees have access to food, donated clothes, shelter, games, showers and community.
“They’re looking for hope," said Col. Velasquez. "They’re looking to find a new life in the United States of America.”
Kids color, kick soccer balls and play in the town square. The men of the village play cricket and watch the sport on television. Women can dance the attan in their native language of Dari. Some of the refugees also speak Pashto, Denver said. There are prayer tents for worship and a 1.7 mile secluded walking trail "to destress."
"We are here to help our guests not just survive, but thrive," Brig. Gen. Gabrielli said.
'Guests' have three Halal meals a day, with opportunities for snacks.
"Many of them had the issues of food insecurity," Col. Velasquez said. "There are no food insecurity issues here."
Every refugee has access to ESL classes and adults can take an unemployment workshop, according to camp leaders. Family members live in either 8x12 or 8x20 rooms, depending on their size.
Each family has at least one cell phone (donated or brought from Afghanistan) to communicate with family members back home, Velasquez said.
Family left behind
"I miss my daddy," admits a 21-year-old Kabul woman who asked not to be named.
“The behavior of the Taliban was very bad," she said. "They were hitting everybody. They were shooting the guns between our legs.”
The 21-year-old and her mother had to leave her father behind because she said he is in hiding.
Rahatullah Doust told ABC-7 that he was helping the United Nations when the Taliban took power of his native city of Kabul.
“Suddenly, everything collapsed and everybody was thinking like, ‘This is a dream. This is not reality,'" Doust remembered. "It was a very bad nightmare."
With the violence and chaos erupting at the airport, the father made the difficult decision to leave his wife, son and daughter Fariha behind.
"She was not even one-year old," he said. "I went alone because I didn't want to lose my daughter."
The average stay of a refugee is between 30 and 90 days, Denver said. Once they're connected with a resettlement agency, they take a commercial flight to another part of the country.
Groups depart with up to 200 refugees going "to all parts of the country."
"It's a really happy time," Denver said. "We're excited. It's also very emotional because we're saying goodbye to people we've become friends with."
For U.S. Air Force leaders who served in Afghanistan, 'Operation Allies Welcome' is fulfilling and emotional.
"The most rewarding element for me is a sense of closure," said Col. Velasquez, who has served for nearly three decades. "I realize the situation was out of my control, but if I can do my part to help, that's the most rewarding part."