“I’ll take phone chargers!” yelled 22-year-old Salima Khan to the crowd of people trying to deliver donations.
“She said to only bring the duffel bags!” one woman said as she dropped them off.
Fleeing Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban, several hundred Afghans touched down at Dulles International Airport on Friday and were shuttled overnight to the Northern Virginia college, in what for some was their first experience in the United States. The Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management set up more than 500 cots — provided by the college — in an event center, gymnasium and community rooms, said Hoang-Dung Nguyen, a spokeswoman for the college. Volunteers have been bringing pizzas and snacks and water.
Those newly arrived may stay two hours or two days, Nguyen said, describing the college as a “transfer point” before the Afghans or Afghan Americans are taken to other locations or military bases. Some said they were headed to a base in Texas next.
Khan, catching her breath for a moment as the stream of donors died down, said the volunteers included members of the local Afghan community.
Khan said her parents were born in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and ultimately escaped during the Taliban takeover in the 1990s. “So I feel like I’m re-watching what they went through — but now with all of this support. They didn’t have that,” she said.
Many of those who came with donations or to offer help were there because they knew what the new arrivals were going through: They, too, had family fleeing Kabul.
“We just want to share their pain,” said one man, Nasrul, who gave only his first name because his siblings’ lives are still in danger in Afghanistan. “We are not in Afghanistan, but we are in sorrow.”
Maybe, he said, they could help the new arrivals relax. “At least these lives are safe now,” he said.
Daryoush Amiri, a Fairfax resident, said his wife and two kids, a 7- and 4-year-old, flew to Kabul to visit other family last month as a vacation. They were supposed to fly home on Aug. 16 — “but it was canceled, and then the government collapsed,” he said. Instead, they flew to Qatar on a crowded evacuation flight and are now in Germany, unsure what comes next, he said. When Amiri heard that hundreds of Afghans in need would be arriving in his own community, he ran to the store for diapers and toiletries.
One of those who just arrived from Kabul was a 32-year-old father who fled with his 18-month-old son. He had worked with a Pakistani cargo company contracted with the U.S. military and managed to get a Special Immigrant Visa.
He spent two nights outside the gate to get into the Kabul airport — but despite his pleas, he could not bring his wife and daughter with him because they did not yet have the proper paperwork, said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was still worried about their safety.
“It is difficult to be with a baby and be his mother and his father,” he said. “No one can feel my sensation. I repeatedly, repeatedly cried — this is his time to be with his mother.”
But he knew his baby could not remain in Afghanistan, and so he had to go, holding out hope that his wife and daughter would eventually be allowed to join him.
“He still asks me for his mom,” the father said, standing outside an entrance to the college.
Protesters lend support
As the new arrivals began to get settled, miles away, more than 75 people gathered in Lafayette Square by the White House to demonstrate for freedom and self-determination for Afghans.
Sarah Faizy, 28, of Burke, Va., said she felt, like many other Afghans, that her people had been abandoned, and the small size of the crowd made that worse.
“I’m kind of sad that I don’t see more support,” said Faizy, whose family had to flee the country when the Taliban first seized control in the 1990s. As refugees, they transited Tajikistan and Russia, and her father died along the way, before she wound up in the United States as an adolescent living with another relative. She carried a sign that read, “We will never be a pawn in someone else’s game. We will always be Afghanistan.”
Faizy, a scientist who works for a pharmaceutical company, said she and other demonstrators also appealed to the U.S. government and others to provide humanitarian aid, particularly for women and children who are vulnerable under Taliban rule.
A frightening journey
Back in Annandale, Ajmal Ahmadzai, a U.S. citizen who has worked for the State Department and at a military prison at the Bagram air base, said he knew his background made him a prime target for Taliban reprisal. So within hours of the fall of Kabul, he was on his way to the airport, taking his wife and five children who have never been to the United States.
The journey was so frightening, Ahmadzai said, that he considered at one point turning around and going home.
“It took me 14 hours just to get inside,” he said. “It was like going through a thousand zombies to make it to the gate.”
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, his brother-in-law, Ahmad Wali, was waiting. Ecstatic to learn they would be flying into Dulles, the Tysons resident waited at the airport until 5 a.m. for them to emerge before going back home to bed, realizing they wouldn’t be coming out. After a few hours of sleep, he got up to meet them at the community college. He embraced his sister and Ahmadzai and reintroduced himself to some of Ahmadzai’s youngest children who after years apart “don’t even know me.”
“I’m really excited,” he said. “As soon as they’re rested up, I’m going to take them to Washington, D.C., the Georgetown waterfront, so they can see some nice places.”
Still, Wali’s relief at his family members’ arrival was dampened by the fear that others were still in danger in Kabul.
One Alexandria resident who brought donations, Abdul Hukoor, said his family members had tried five or six times to go to the airport, only to retreat because it was so dangerous. His mother and siblings and their children, including a 40-day-old baby, got close once, Hukoor said — but they were tear-gassed. His infant nephew was vomiting. He appeared unable to breathe.
The experiences have been frightening for his 8-year-old nephew, too, who started to believe the airport was America, Hukoor said. “He said, I don’t want to come to the U.S.”
So Hukoor showed a video to his nephew of his home in Alexandria, the green space, the people walking on the sidewalk, and told him one day he would be here.
Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.