For Afghan arrivals, a taste of the US at an air base in Germany

Matthias Schrader/AP
Young Afghans stand next to tents that house evacuees from Afghanistan at the United States’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany, while women wash clothes in the background.

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Fresh fruit. A bottle of water. And a smile. This may be a military base, but Afghans arriving at the United States’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany aren’t greeted by anyone in uniform, at least not at first.

Because these aren’t fighters, says Air Force Brig. Gen. Joshua Olson. “These are our future neighbors.”

Why We Wrote This

The first steps for people after fleeing a country can be daunting. Members of the U.S. military at Ramstein Air Base in Germany are trying to ease that transition for thousands of Afghans airlifted out of Kabul who are eventually headed to the U.S.

But if the initial welcome went well, the prolonged hosting of thousands of refugees at the air base has also been full of taxing logistical hurdles. The sudden influx made handling basic necessities difficult. Trash removal, toilets, and kitchens struggled to keep up. Pregnant women and school-age children needed to be looked after. Uncertainty still hangs over many refugees, not sure how their future in the U.S. will play out. 

Yet resilience shines through, as semblances of community emerge. Men who had been barbers in Afghanistan provide haircuts. Some 40 babies have been born in a gymnasium-turned-maternity ward. Children are learning English out of a hangar. 

“How old are you?” asks Jessie Bledsoe, a military spouse teaching English at a class in the hangar. The classes were organized by Ahmad Faizi, a school director turned refugee at the base.

The little girl Ms. Bledsoe asked the question to responds: “I’m 10.”

The hangar erupts in cheers.

In a dimly lit U.S. military tent, as tiny children toddle between benches, a group of Afghan women is getting a crash course in how to carry on in a new culture.

“Americans like to see people who are doing something,” the instructor tells them. “You can’t just sit on cushions and wait for things to come to you.”

Their future neighbors also don’t like people who are “judgy,” she warns, despite what they may have heard. “If you want to wear a headscarf, you can wear a headscarf. But if you want to be accepted, Americans also have a right to be accepted – their culture, their religion, everything. Don’t [be shocked] if you arrive and women are wearing much less.” 

Why We Wrote This

The first steps for people after fleeing a country can be daunting. Members of the U.S. military at Ramstein Air Base in Germany are trying to ease that transition for thousands of Afghans airlifted out of Kabul who are eventually headed to the U.S.

Other surprises will arise as they settle in, the instructor notes in the widely spoken Afghan language of Dari, starting with public buses and their predesignated stops. “It’s not like home, where you can tell the driver, ‘Let me off here.’”

A woman raises her hand. “I have questions.” The instructor tells her to hold on. “We’ll get to those later.” 

Matthias Schrader/AP
A U.S. soldier plays with Afghan children at the base, which at its peak hosted 20,000 Afghans, who are expected to be resettled in America.

The women’s subsequent queries tend to involve what sort of reception they will receive in their new home – answers that will hinge on Americans themselves as they begin to welcome these Afghan allies, brought to safety in the largest air evacuation in U.S. military history.

The lessons being learned on this sprawling military base in Germany represent one more postscript to America’s tangled 20-year relationship with Afghanistan. After an abrupt end to America’s longest war and a shambolic evacuation, the U.S. military is now being faced with housing the thousands of Afghans who were airlifted out of the country and making them as comfortable as possible before they settle in the United States. That has meant setting up temporary maternity wards in gymnasiums, schools in hangars, and a small city of tents.

For the evacuees, the stay here at Ramstein Air Base, the largest military community overseas, is a way-stop to a future that is unknown from a past they knew they had to flee. While relieved to be out from under the Taliban’s repressive rule, many of the “travelers,” as they are known here, are struggling with guilt about loved ones still in the country. They are also wrestling with anxiety about how they will adjust to life in their new home and wondering what sort of treatment they will be greeted with upon their arrival. 

That uncertainty is understandable. Americans continue to harbor some ambivalence about the newcomers. While three quarters of U.S. citizens (76% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans) support their resettlement in the U.S., according to a recent poll, a Republican proposal sought to cut off housing, food, and medical aid for Afghan immigrants by March 2023. It also endeavored to kill a provision that would allow them to get driver’s licenses without key documentation they may have left behind in their rush to flee the Taliban. 

Senior Airman Jan K. Valle/U.S. Air Force/Reuters
The U.S. military set up hundreds of tents at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to house evacuees from Afghanistan.

At the same time, former President Donald Trump urged his followers to oppose “free welfare” for Afghan refugees, who, he warned, would bring violence to U.S. shores “if this isn’t shut down.” The amendment in Congress was narrowly defeated along strict party lines, but could be reintroduced in future bills. 

The precarity of future financial aid for the Afghans has been repeatedly hammered home in this class. But here at Ramstein, there is widespread gratitude among U.S. military personnel for the services Afghans provided during the war and a special sympathy for their plight. The majority of those who have arrived at the base, in numbers that reached 20,000 at their peak, worked directly with the U.S. in military, diplomatic, and development efforts, or are a family member of someone who did. Hundreds more were journalists or human rights activists, occupations that put them at risk and made them eligible to settle in the U.S. Others simply fled the country out of fear for their lives and were tough, or vulnerable, enough to make it on a flight. 

To handle the influx, the military brought in nearly 1,000 service members from outside the region to help out the thousands of U.S. personnel at Ramstein. They’ve distributed 110 tons of donated clothes, assembled 542 tents big enough to hold about 30 people each, and played in daily soccer matches with the Afghans. 

“This isn’t the Taliban,” says Air Force Brig. Gen. Joshua Olson, the top commander at Ramstein. “These are amazing people who are just coming from a different side of the world. These are our future neighbors.”

Even in the rush to find enough tents and food for Afghan evacuees, General Olson was clear on one thing: When the packed cargo planes landed, he didn’t want the new arrivals to be greeted by troops.

Airman 1st Class Jennifer Gonzalez/Courtesy of U.S. Air Force
“This isn’t the Taliban. These are amazing people who are just coming from a different side of the world. These are our future neighbors.” – Joshua Olson, brigadier general and top commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany

“Those folks were met with some fresh fruit, a bottle of water, and a smile – not a person in uniform,” he says, noting that the USO and Red Cross were among those doing the welcoming. “That was my focus.” They weren’t fighters, he says; they were family. 

While the military is steeped in handling complex logistics, the sudden influx of new arrivals has produced its share of scrambling. The newcomers represent the largest surge of outsiders Ramstein has ever seen. While several military bases in the U.S. have received Afghan evacuees – some taking in as many as 13,000 – none has hosted the number of people in “little Kabul” here.

To house them all, the military quickly set up reserve tents – enough for 5,000 evacuees. But more than 6,500 Afghans arrived at Ramstein in the first couple of days alone. The troops also laid out thousands of cots, though they quickly learned that the evacuees didn’t like sleeping on them. So they tracked down 58,000 yoga mats instead, taking some out of storage, but purchasing most of them locally.

Finding enough food to suddenly feed a small village proved particularly difficult. “We bought up every ounce of food within 100 miles,” says the brigadier general. “We were buying out all the grocery stores and all of the restaurants on base, all the local bakeries.” But it still wasn’t enough, so they sent U.S. troops to Frankfurt Airport to snap up surplus airline meals.

This all created a lot of trash, and it wasn’t long before the sanitation troubles set in. For starters, water bottles ended up in the portable toilets, which were soon overflowing. “You can’t imagine the stench,” says General Olson.

Matthias Schrader/AP
Evacuees from Afghanistan wait for their departure to be resettled in the U.S., at a hangar at Ramstein Air Base.

The bathroom troubles continued on commercial airliners commandeered to fly evacuees from Ramstein to the U.S. The planes were “gross” enough, he says, that private contractors refused to clean them, forcing the aircraft to be flown back to Ramstein full of human waste and garbage for U.S. troops to scour. 

Families stepped up, too – more than 2,500 local Germans along with thousands of U.S. military spouses and children – to pick up trash around the airfield and volunteer in the two hangars cleared of planes to create space for the Afghans.

Service members also established a “kinder pod,” where they housed unaccompanied minors. One day, General Olson learned that there was a 23-year-old living in the pod. “I’m like ‘absolutely not,’” he recalls. “But then I heard her story.”

The young woman had been a college student in Kabul, but, worried about her future under the Taliban, she decided to flee. On her way to the airport, she picked up two small children whose parents had died. They all made it on the plane to Ramstein.

Proudly wearing her college T-shirt, the woman told UNICEF officials that she didn’t feel safe sleeping in the hangar: Other Afghans were bad-mouthing her for having children, no husband, and no headscarf. “I said, ‘We got you. Absolutely keep her in the kinder pod,’” General Olson says.

Something as mundane as haircuts became a concern, too. Many “didn’t want to look like the Taliban” and were asking for trims, he says. “But if something goes wrong, it’ll be, ‘What idiot gave them the razors?’” In the end, to encourage a sense of normalcy, the general allowed the razors to be passed out anyway. 

Soon, men who had been barbers in Afghanistan emerged from tents offering to help with the haircuts. People “lined up for hours,” General Olson says. 

Anna Mulrine Grobe
Jessie Bledsoe, who teaches English as a second language, volunteers in a school set up on the base.

It’s not hard to find the small schoolhouse in the middle of a hangar that used to house C-130 cargo planes. Dozens of children jostle in a disorderly line at the entrance to their classroom, cordoned off from the rest of the cavernous space with Army green tarps hung on chain-link fences.

Like tiny clubgoers, they have ink stamps on the back of their hands. Volunteers dole out backpacks filled with goodies, bought with thousands of donations from U.S. families living in Germany. The stamps are to make sure each child just gets one of them. 

As a couple of girls hit the line again, a volunteer sees their hand stamps and turns them away. “Nice try, though,” she says, with a nod of admiration for their hustle.

Inside the classroom, a bedsheet serves as a projector screen for students seated at desks made of two-by-fours laid over traffic barriers. Jessie Bledsoe, a military spouse, volunteer, and teacher of English as a second language, stands at the front of the class. Some 60 children count to 10 in English. Once the task is accomplished, they erupt in cheers. 

“How old are you?” Ms. Bledsoe asks one girl. “I’m 10,” she says. More cheers.

The classes were the brainchild of Ahmad Faizi, a former school principal and interpreter for U.S. forces in Kandahar, who is now living in the tents with his wife and baby. “As a refugee, you don’t have much else to do. So I said, ‘Let me get this going.’ We’re busy, the day goes faster, and we get to see kids learning.”

He knew just how to spread the word. “We started with six kids and got them reading really loudly. Parents heard that and said, ‘Oh, there’s a school going on.’”

Now 1,000 women and children are showing up every day for classes that run every hour, says Ms. Bledsoe, who teaches 10 hours a day.

Airman Edgar Grimaldo/U.S. Air Force/AP
Artwork colored by Afghan children hangs on a wall at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“We just thought of things they really needed to learn so that when they first introduced themselves at their new schools in America, they could have confidence,” she says.

Mr. Faizi’s first experience running a school was back in 2001, before the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power. “I bought every student a turban,” he says. “We started with the Islamic stuff, so when the Taliban came, they would see everybody studying Islam. They’d be happy and get out. Then we could do our own things – Pashto, English, art.”

Before the Taliban toppled the Afghan government this summer, Mr. Faizi was working multiple jobs, including as a security director at the airport. This gave him a chance to escape. At one point he brought his wife and their newborn to the airport, telling authorities they needed more women to do security pat-downs. “Then we got on a plane,” he says. 

The Taliban takeover has been hard for him, he notes, tearing up. “We had a proper country for a long time.” He plans to go to Long Island, New York, and become a teacher. “But if Afghanistan ever needs my support again,” he says, “I’d go back.”

With so many families being evacuated to Ramstein, military officials have had to deal with a variety of health care needs – none more pressing than the birth of children. More than 200 of the Afghans flown out of Kabul were pregnant, and some 40 babies have been born on the base since then. Their arrival has often taken place in a makeshift maternity ward on a basketball court in a converted gym. 

Anna Mulrine Grobe
Air Force Maj. Suzanne Stammler, an obstetrician, stands in her makeshift clinic and delivery room on a basketball court at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Among those helping out with the deliveries has been Maj. Suzanne Stammler, an Air Force obstetrician who was brought to Ramstein from her base in England. 

“There are very young ladies who have had many, many babies, and I know that is a bit out of my comfort zone,” says Dr. Stammler, who notes that it is not unusual for some of the women to have had 10 children.

Accustomed to caring for Western patients, she has struggled with some of the cultural differences she has encountered. When she sees women here, their husbands sit right beside them – whether the wives want them there or not.

“The male is definitely the driver in terms of discussions,” Dr. Stammler says. “It’s hard for me as a provider who has taken the Western role of talking directly to women and making sure they’re safe.” 

She recalls one visit in which the family spoke a less common Afghan dialect, so there were two male interpreters on hand. “The husband was very aware of this stuff, really answering questions, so that gave me reassurance. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many gentlemen in one room interested in birth control and menstrual cycles.

Then there have been the cases of assault. Dr. Stammler tells of a woman who came to see her wearing leg braces. “She said she’d had polio, like it was nothing.” The woman was also 27 weeks pregnant, living in a tent, and said she had been abused by her husband. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be with him anymore.’”

Dr. Stammler summoned a social worker, a therapist, and a sexual assault counselor. “Luckily the [unborn] baby was fine, but you knew the risk was significant,” she says. “We didn’t have any doubt that she was desperate.” 

The woman had fled Afghanistan with her mother and sister as well. “We got them on a flight, and made sure her husband wasn’t there for it,” Dr. Stammler says. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t take that intervention. But was it the right one?”

Anna Mulrine Grobe
Capt. Mir Ali, a Muslim chaplain, is one of five imams in the U.S. Air Force. He has been counseling Afghan evacuees at Ramstein Air Base.

Capt. Mir Ali leads a call to Friday prayers as his song echoes out of loudspeakers across the tent city here. He hands out prayer rugs – some 600 were bought by the U.S. military from local vendors when the evacuees started arriving – to latecomers who are still standing in line for lunch when the services begin. 

The Afghans are “grateful, deep down, to be away from a place where they were living in fear of persecution,” he says. But they are grappling with regrets, too. Many have left home, never to return, and have family members still in Afghanistan. 

“There’s fear – whether their wives and children are alive, whether their family has access to food, shelter, and clothing. They’ve lost touch with them,” Captain Ali says. 

There’s also uncertainty about their journey from here. In early September, the Biden administration halted all flights of Afghan evacuees to the U.S. after several arrivals from Ramstein were diagnosed with the measles. Those flights have since resumed. Now the White House is hoping to speed the transfer of evacuees off bases, including through a program, announced in late October, to pair Americans with Afghan arrivals and help neighborhoods create “sponsor circles.”

The prolonged stay of the evacuees here has taxed resources. Military personnel tried to find enough space heaters to warm the tents as the cold weather approached. Unable to do that, they pushed tents together, with one heater for every two dwellings.

They have made other accommodations as well. They put Wi-Fi in the hangars, so evacuees could reach out to family back home, and trucked in rows of donated German biergarten tables and benches, along with kettles, so they could gather for tea. 

Markus Schreiber/AP
Military police patrol makeshift departure gates inside a hangar for evacuees from Afghanistan, bound for the U.S., at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Sept. 1, 2021.

But drinking tea is something Afghans do with their families, and “though it’s a source of comfort,” Captain Ali says, “you take that familial piece away, and it’s a reminder of loss.”

Captain Ali’s journey to Ramstein was circuitous in its own way. He enlisted in the military at age 20 after dropping out of college, “not even knowing what the role of chaplain was.” 

He’d planned on serving for four years, but after the 9/11 attacks he decided to stay in. His friends knew he was Muslim and were asking him questions about his religion – answers that he didn’t have. “That piqued my interest in learning about my faith.”

He earned a Master of Divinity at the Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Southern California that had a partnership with an Islamic institute.

Today he is one of only five imams in the U.S. Air Force. Having arrived at Ramstein with his family in June, he now works out of a chapel on the base that serves as a Christian church, a Jewish temple, and an Islamic mosque as he counsels the Afghan refugees. 

Following the Friday service, Captain Ali says he is thankful he was sent to the base in time to work with the new arrivals.

He is able to counsel them that, however wrenching their journey might be, they are moving forward. “God tells us that with forward motion comes progress,” he says. “I try to help them understand that this is one step towards something better – something great.”

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