The rumors seemed to be evolving each day, ever since an international humanitarian crisis made its way across the world and then landed in Blackstone’s backyard. Just over a mile from the town limits, past a thick tree line and behind the heavily guarded gates of Fort Pickett, there were now more Afghan evacuees than Blackstone residents.
Roughly 5,900 men, women and children who had escaped the chaos and the Taliban in Kabul were now sleeping on cots in barracks and tractor trailers at the Virginia National Guard installation, one of three military bases in Virginia where Afghans are being temporarily housed before getting resettled in communities across the United States.
The makeshift village was largely invisible to anyone beyond the gates of the military base, as were the Afghans within it. They were nowhere to be seen in the town of Blackstone, but somehow seemed to be everywhere too, as their recent arrival transfixed the community.
Coleburn watched as his town seemed to crack into two different Americas: one, welcoming the evacuees with floods of donations and compassion, and the other, apprehensive and suspicious, believing the mere presence of the foreigners posed a threat to the town’s safety. A recent arrest of one Afghan evacuee at Fort Pickett on charges of grand larceny, after he was accused of stealing a car on base, had only inflamed their suspicions.
Coleburn slid open the first unread text. “A cryptic message is circulating about several escapees that have homemade weapons,” one woman warned the mayor. The second message was more specific: “Have you heard about the 60 escaped refugees? They are headed to Blackstone to rob, rape and whatever they are planning.” That woman added: “Or is this a wild rumor?” Coleburn sighed. “Where did she get that number from?”
Coleburn, who is also the owner and editor of the local newspaper, the Courier-Record, says it broke the news in late August that Fort Pickett would likely be called on by the federal government to host thousands of Afghans who left in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
Now the front page of his weekly newspaper was splashed with a bold red headline, “Afghan Numbers Rise,” next to the mug shot of the arrested Afghan man, and its pages had suddenly become a sounding board for the split opinions on welcoming their new neighbors.
“What’s wrong with this picture?!” wrote Sam Mordan, a resident from the neighboring town of Kenbridge, in a letter to the editor Sept. 15. “The US can’t take care of its own homeless and veterans, but can bring in tens of thousands of Afghans and give them everything.”
The bottom left corner on the next page sounded a different note: “Want To Help The Afghan Evacuees?” read an ad from Blackstone Baptist Church. Down in the basement at Blackstone Baptist Church, Pastor Ted Fuson had set aside some space for the dozens of hygiene kits that residents had been dropping off. As far as he could tell, politics and rumors hadn’t had any impact on the eagerness of community members to help.
“Some people were scared to death they’d be terrorists. All it takes is one person to say it. But that’s just not Blackstone. It just isn’t,” said Fuson, a cowboy-boot-wearing 78-year-old, of the reaction to the news. “It’s your typical small town of people who care about each other.”
Blackstone, a diverse community where roughly half the residents are Black, is also in a deeply conservative area of Virginia, with a big military and veteran population. Men and women in army green fatigues from Fort Pickett can often be seen walking along the pristinely kept Main Street, passing recently remodeled storefronts. As he walks to the Brew House for lunch, Coleburn picks up a stray chewing gum wrapper on the sidewalk and throws it in a trash can. “Drives me crazy,” he says.
The town, he says, has taken immense pride in being the home of Fort Pickett, Blackstone’s major employer. So when he heard some complaints after the base was selected as a housing location for Afghan evacuees, “I said, folks, you can’t sit here and say, ‘We love Fort Pickett,’ and then all of a sudden we get a mission and go, ‘Oh hell no, we don’t want that.’”
Still, to Coleburn, Fort Pickett did seem a bit of an unlikely place to bring thousands of evacuees with critical needs, many arriving with little else than the clothes they were wearing. “This is in a rural area with not a lot of infrastructure. The nearest hospital is 35 miles away,” Coleburn said, and as an added challenge, “a bunch of people are wide-eyed and watching Fox News. Ain’t a lot of MSNBC ‘Morning Joe’ fans around here.”
So there were a lot of people watching, Coleburn said, when Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) went on Laura Ingraham’s show on Sept. 8 and claimed he had heard that Afghans were ordering Ubers and freely leaving Fort Pickett, leading to an avalanche of concerns from Blackstone residents, that they routed to the mayor, who went on Facebook Live to assure them he would look into it, which he now finds himself doing almost daily.
“Every time someone sees somebody that’s not a Caucasian male, they’re like, ‘I saw one at Food Lion,’” Coleburn noted of the reaction of some residents between bites of his burger. “I’m like, ‘folks, they’re with the government. They’re not evacuees shopping at Food Lion.’”
Behind the bar at the Brew House, James Harvey, said he had heard the negative murmuring in town. But his instinct was to be a “humanitarian first.” As a Black man in the South, he said, he felt for the Afghans and what they would have to face as they tried to acclimate to new lives in America, noting “the prejudice as any minority in America would.”
“I don’t think not one person here would want to switch shoes with any of the refugees. They talk that talk but won’t walk that walk,” said Harvey. Yet he can understand why some small business owners who have struggled during the pandemic could see the federal government giving money to the Afghans to help them start new lives and feel a sense of frustration.
One was Al Moore, owner of Farmers Cafe on Main Street. His restaurant had barely survived the pandemic, Moore said, hanging on with the help of federal relief. Now, he grumbled, taxpayers were helping people from a foreign country when people right here in his own community needed help. “We don’t owe them a damn thing,” Moore, 71, said of the Afghan evacuees that have recently arrived, standing outside his restaurant beside a black banner hanging in the window that said, “We Will Never Forget.”
The timing of the arrival of Afghans around the 20th anniversary of 9/11 had Moore particularly upset. Instead of honoring the military and first responders, he believed, “we bring the ones here who blew up the twin towers.” (None of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghans.) Moore said he has found himself afraid even to walk around Blackstone, and some nights he has wondered if an invasion was possible. “I keep a pistol on me all the time,” he said, “because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
‘The right thing to do’
Rebecca Freeze, an Iraq combat veteran who lives about 10 miles east of Blackstone in an unincorporated community called Darvills — “a suburb of Blackstone,” she jokes — had been to Fort Pickett after the arrival of the Afghans and had seen what was happening in Blackstone. And what she witnessed had, at least on one occasion, brought her to tears.
Her friend thought to start a Facebook page for donations and volunteers to help their new neighbors but got “some kickback from people who knew her that wasn’t positive,” Freeze said. “So I told her, well let me start the Facebook page, because after 27 years in the Army, let ‘em come. As a female combat veteran I can get PMS and PTSD at the same time.”
So she started the Facebook page — Helping Afghans in Southern VA — and instead of any negative reactions she got a rush of eager volunteers, turning the page into a mosaic of unique contributions. A local artist used proceeds from the artwork he sold to buy soccer balls for Afghan kids. A chiropractor’s office started collecting toys. Renee and David Cannon, the owners of a clothing store on Main Street that had gone out of business, donated culturally appropriate merchandise to the Afghans.
Renee Cannon, 65, said her father, Adren Quest Hance Sr., sponsored two young Vietnamese refugees — and later, the other family members of those refugees — to come live with them in their small town in Hanover County after the Vietnam War, helping them find jobs and learn English and build new lives. When thousands of Afghans began arriving at Fort Pickett, she wanted to live up to what he had taught her years before.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Cannon said. She connected with Freeze about how to get all the clothing over to Fort Pickett, and soon a truckload of volunteers showed up at the store to help lug it all away.
Freeze had been camped out at Crenshaw United Methodist Church or, in military parlance, Forward Operating Base Crenshaw United Methodist. The basement had been transformed to house around a dozen rotating volunteers from Team Rubicon, a veteran-led nonprofit working with the Defense Department to lead donation distribution inside Fort Pickett. Many had driven or flown in from North Carolina and Pennsylvania and Connecticut, while a few like Freeze were from the area.
Each day, the Team Rubicon volunteers sifted and sorted through the hundreds of boxes of clothing and toys and toiletries in a warehouse on base. Many boxes were mailed in from all over, many pooled by area churches like Blackstone Baptist and Spring Hill Baptist, which that Thursday evening was hosting its latest donation drive.
Spring Hill Pastor Travis Warren said he could understand some of the mixed feelings in Blackstone about Fort Pickett’s mission. He experienced them himself at first. His son fought in Afghanistan from 2019 to 2020, and during that tour, two soldiers in his son’s unit were killed in an attack by a man who was wearing the uniform of an Afghan soldier.
The arrival of so many Afghans who aided the United States in the war effort brought those painful memories to the surface. “But then I would ask myself this question: What would Jesus do?” explained Warren, a doctor of divinity. “And in spite of what happened, Jesus would still take care of the need. So I felt like as a church, that’s what we would do.”
On the first Sunday in September, Warren appealed to his congregation from the pulpit in Spring Hill’s sanctuary. “One of the things I want you to think about: Imagine yourself having to leave everything that you own and possess, and go to a foreign land that you have never been to before with nothing but what you have on your back,” he told his congregation. “Would you not want someone, anyone, to offer a helping hand to you? Well, I’ll tell you, Spring Hill, you stepped up to the plate.”
Warren called up Freeze who, wearing her Team Rubicon shirt, had come to thank the congregation for its recent deluge of charity. At least initially, the operation at Fort Pickett was bare bones, and they soon ran out of clothes to distribute to the evacuees. She called Spring Hill’s director of outreach, Shirverne Griffin, about 9 p.m. a couple days earlier and asked, “How quickly can we deliver clothes?” Quickly, it turned out.
“I kept saying, I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry, but I think I got to,” Freeze said to the church, “because it’s such an emotional time out there because you see such need, and then when we reach out to the community, we see such love. Somebody said that compassion is God’s love in work boots.” Warren leaned over to hand her a box of tissues.
At the same time volunteers were gathering in Spring Hill’s basement for the donation drive, Coleburn was firing up Facebook Live. By then fears of “60 escaped refugees” had been percolating for hours on social media, and now, citing his federal source at Fort Pickett, the mayor had some answers. “The rumor is completely false,” he assured Blackstone residents.
The apprehension was starting to wear on Coleburn — “now I’m one of those people who can’t sleep,” he said — but he knew the only way to calm fears was to deliver facts. So the day after the Ingraham segment, and not long after the recent grand larceny arrest on base, Coleburn and the town manager, Philip Vannoorbeeck, joined Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) on a tour of Fort Pickett, eager to bring answers to the community.
No unauthorized people have been leaving the base, and the Afghans who are able to leave have completed health and security screenings, and were confirmed to be U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, Spanberger said she had learned. She added the base’s medical unit is equipped to handle urgent care, reducing the impact on local hospitals.
Spokespeople for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security — which declined to make officials available for interviews or provide access to Fort Pickett or to Afghans on the base — said in a statement that the evacuees have gone through “a multi-layer screening and vetting process” performed by federal law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals before arriving at Fort Pickett. The evacuees include Special Immigrant Visa holders who aided in the war effort, their families and others on humanitarian parole whose lives were endangered by the Taliban.
They undergo “additional inspection” in the United States, along with coronavirus testing and a slate of mandatory vaccines. As of the middle of the week, there were 38 positive coronavirus cases and one positive measles case at Fort Pickett, and all the individuals were isolated.
The Afghan man accused of stealing the car has been jailed, and is awaiting possible deportation. But DHS said that was an isolated incident at Fort Pickett, and the “allegations of widespread criminal mischief, attempted escape, or other concerning behavior are unfounded,” the agency said in a statement addressing the various rumors in Blackstone.
It’s unclear how long the mission might continue at Fort Pickett, as DHS could not give an estimate on the average length of stay for the evacuees, saying that it will vary by individual depending on the length of time for vaccines to take effect, work permits to be completed, and on the capacity of resettlement agencies to relocate the Afghans to new homes.
During his visit to the base, Coleburn said his main complaint was the litter there, which he raised with the general in charge at Fort Pickett, while lobbying for increased security to ease the town’s concerns. Mostly, he said, they just witnessed “people waiting in long lines for those basic mundane human needs,” roughly two-thirds of them women and small children. There were prayer tents set up to function as mosques, and tea tents set up for socializing. Kids kicked around a soccer ball and hung on the walls pictures scrawled in crayon of imperfect American flags.
A hard mission
Around dusk on Thursday evening, Team Rubicon returned to Crenshaw Methodist after another day of sifting and sorting donations, and gathered beneath the outdoor pavilion for their nightly debrief meeting.
“Okay everyone, circle up!” the group’s incident commander, Laura Block, shouted to the group. One by one, the volunteers delivered a report on the day’s work. “Some of y’all are headed home,” she said, as some volunteer rotations came to an end. “And post-op drop, it’s a real thing. So keep your eyes open, and if you start to feel sad, give somebody a call.”
The mission at Fort Pickett had been beautiful but hard to see, Block said afterward, and it could take a toll. Some potty-trained children seemed to regress, maybe due to trauma, Block said, and now they needed diapers. Many of the Afghan families did not want to use the communal washers on base, reticent to let go, even for an hour, of what few belongings they had, so they hung their laundry from clotheslines by the barracks.
The image that has most often followed her back to her green cot at night, however, was of Afghan families sitting on blankets in the grass passing the time, the kids smiling and waving as Block — with “happy” written across her shirt where her name was supposed to be — tried to hide the lump in her throat. “It’s almost like they’re on an island,” she said, waiting to come ashore to the mainland to start new lives beyond the gates.