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Virginia center is first stop in U.S. for thousands of Afghan refugees

An Afghan national and her son walk through the National Conference Center, which in recent months has been redesigned to temporarily house Afghan nationals in Leesburg, Va. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

LEESBURG, VA. — A poster inside the National Conference Center greets evacuees from Afghanistan in that country’s two major languages, Pashto and Dari. “What makes you excited about life in the U.S.A.?” it asks.

The poster is hung inside a conference room where about 4,000 Afghan immigrants have received their initial welcome from U.S. officials. The site, which has received hundreds of evacuees per month since opening early this year, will receive a final planeload of visitors this month and cease operation by the end of September, officials say.

During its time in service, the 40-acre site has been used by the Department of Homeland Security to house evacuees for periods of generally less than 30 days while they obtain work authorizations and are paired with resettlement agencies trying to find them permanent homes in U.S. communities. On Thursday, officials offered journalists a walk-through of the facility.

The “safe haven” at the privately owned facility, which is normally used for corporate events, is a central piece of a more expedited phase of the Biden administration’s overall resettlement efforts, which have placed more than 80,000 Afghans in communities across the country since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year.

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After receiving initial welcoming remarks in the conference room, evacuees move to an intake room for paperwork. The room is plastered with pictures of puppies, unicorns, U.S. flags, Spider-Man, and Afghanistan maps colored by children, then taped to the wall, as they’ve waited for officials to collect their parents’ signatures and biometrics.

From there, the evacuees make their way to the center’s front desk to receive what Kelli Mueller, its director of operations, calls a traditional hotel front-desk experience “with a little bit of a twist.”

“We’re not always able to put families 100 percent together because of the size of our guest rooms, so oftentimes we have to put maybe a mom with one child in one room and a dad with another in a separate room,” Mueller told journalists. Though the separations sometimes cause initial frustration, the families are generally put at ease when they realize the rooms will be side-by-side, she said.

The evacuees are given lanyards with room key cards and color-coded wrist bands for their stay. The sleeping quarters are typical hotel rooms with televisions and private bathrooms and often an extra bed added in place of a desk. The evacuees receive regular housekeeping services and access to laundry rooms. Though the facility can sleep more than a thousand people, officials put the occupancy Thursday at 657.

It’s not a detention center; evacuees can leave anytime. But once they go they can’t return, and they would give up many of the benefits due to them from the U.S. government. Officials say the evacuees would remain eligible for housing assistance and other aid from a federally funded resettlement agency, but they would lose the safe haven’s help in finding and securing a commitment from an agency able to support their case and transportation to whatever part of the country they resettle in. Kenneth Graf, federal coordinator for the site, said no one has chosen to leave.

There’s a supply room with free clothes, shoes and other goods. “Take as much as you need,” says a sign in Pashto and Dari. There’s a library, with mostly English books that can be checked out. A music room stocked with keyboards, drums and guitars. A legal center. And a computer center, where visitors can learn word-processing skills, or how to use an iPhone or Google Maps.

Then there’s the dining hall, where executive chef Frank Estremera oversees the preparation of Afghan-inspired meals of green bean aloo, seekh kebab, kidney bean stew, rice with green lentils and other dishes that Estremera and his staff have devised with help from Afghan cookbooks and YouTube. There are also hot dogs. “My main goal was and is to make the Afghan people feel loved and welcomed through food,” said Estremera, himself an immigrant from Peru.

On Thursday at lunchtime, Afghan families ate together quietly around the dining hall’s tables. An Afghan child greeted journalists with a friendly “Hello!”

A 26-year-old evacuee whose last name is Wahdat agreed to speak with a reporter in Dari through an interpreter. She declined to give her first name, fearful for the safety of family members still in Afghanistan.

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Wahdat, who arrived at the center two weeks ago, said she’d done intelligence, human resources and administrative work for the Afghan national army for five years until the government fell. She was threatened and followed by the Taliban — and tried to flee Kabul during the initial evacuations — but could not get out.

The dark-haired young woman spent two months in a safe house before making it to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where she spent about nine months before arriving in the United States with two suitcases. She has relatives in Washington state and hopes to resettle there.

Wahdat has a bachelor’s degree in law from a university in Afghanistan and wants to be a lawyer. She said she’s been surprised at the kindness of everyone she’s met in the United States.

Wahdat’s eyes, peering from between a black head covering and a medical mask to protect from the coronavirus, teared up only once during the interview — as she spoke of her father and how proud he says he is of her. “Despite the distance, my father is very happy to see me safe here.”

Her parents fled Kabul and live in a rural area now. She said she hopes her family can join her in the United States one day. She talks with her father every week or two by cellphone when he travels to a place with a signal.

On Thursday morning, as the journalists’ tour was beginning, one group of Afghan evacuees’ time at the center was ending. They pushed luggage carts to buses, waiting to take them to wherever they were destined to resettle.

Homeland Security police officers smiled and waved as the evacuees left. “Bye,” an officer said. “Good luck.”

This story has been updated with additional information about assistance available to the evacuees.