Afghan evacuees adjusting to new lives in New Jersey

Eleven thousand people currently live at Liberty Village. Forty percent of them are kids under the age of 14.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Friday, December 3, 2021
Afghan evacuees adjusting to new lives in New Jersey
Eleven thousand people currently live at Liberty Village. Forty percent of them are kids under the age of 14.

PEMBERTON, New Jersey (WPVI) -- Dozens of Afghan children are taking the first steps towards adjusting to their new lives: they're learning English.

It's all happening inside a building that U.S. service members once used for training.

The children are some of the temporary residents in Liberty Village, which is located on the grounds of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Air Base in Pemberton, New Jersey.

The base, which wasn't being used for training at the time, was transformed into a housing and resource center for Afghan refugees.

There are three villages on the base, with Afghan Refugees walking throughout each village. Many of them smile and laugh while talking to one another. Others carry signs of worry on their faces as they figure out the next steps of their new lives.

"Our unwavering goal has been to make their life, in this temporary location, better every day," said Brig. Gen. Adrian White, who is the Task Force Liberty commander. He adds that the motto of Liberty Village is "Better Every Day."

Eleven thousand people currently live at Liberty Village. Forty percent of them are kids under the age of 14.

Breaking the refugee population at Liberty Village down by gender: 46% of them are female and 54% are male. Keeping cultural factors in mind, single men and women are housed separately from one another. Families are housed together.

Their journey on this base began the same way: arriving in a sterile, organized building that routed them through several stations for a processing procedure that can take one to three hours.

That process includes vaccinations, which include a mandatory COVID vaccine. The base continues to do COVID testing for refugees and estimates a positivity rate of less than 1%.

The refugees are screened for security purposes before gaining permission to travel to safe havens such as Liberty Village. There are seven safe havens currently operating in the U.S.

Dr. Ghulam Eshan Sharifi was relieved when he got on a flight out of Kabul as the Taliban took over.

"I was hiding because it was dangerous for me to go outside," said Sharifi.

He spent 15 years working directly with the U.S. Navy to help American forces in Afghanistan.

Silen Hussainzada, who is 25 years old, remembers her September 8 arrival well. She recalls seeing members of the Taliban beat people in the streets of Kabul and shock them with electric devices. Arriving in New Jersey was a relief from what she describes as trauma.

"When I got to the base, I felt that here I can rest," she said.

Refugees at Liberty Village also receive medical care.

U.S. forces oversaw the building of an entire village from the ground up, including rows of tent-like buildings with all of the amenities of a doctor's office. They provide everything from dental care to medical appointments and OB/GYN care. About 100 babies have been born on the grounds of Liberty Village. Born on U.S. soil, they are all American.

"It's beautiful," said Air Force 2nd Lt. Michael Yee who works with the refugees including children. "I'm just so optimistic for their future and the life they'll have in the United States," he said.

Senior Airman Natalie Dunaway says service members connect with the children every day. The villages include service members and civilians who serve as translators for the many languages of different areas of Afghanistan.

"The kids are amazing. They're always asking for lollipops," said Dunaway.

Liberty Village also provides Halal-certified food in a 24-hour café, which includes a grab-and-go service.

Refugees who arrive with money also have the option of making purchases in other areas of the villages. The base provides culturally-appropriate clothing for adults and children.

The clothing is donated by people across the country, including in the Philadelphia area. Nonprofits help collect the donations. Officials say the best way to find ways to contribute is through the website

"I know the evacuees are grateful (for donations)" said Dunaway.

Liberty Village receives one to two groups of refugees a week. The most recent groups have included approximately 200 people each. The next group is expected to arrive on Sunday.

All of the refugees will become American citizens and resettle in cities across the country including Philadelphia. Some of the people who resettled from Afghanistan were already U.S. citizens or had family in the U.S. and did not need to be transported to safe haven sites.

Liberty Village began welcoming refugees on August 24. To date, about 83,000 Afghan refugees have been accepted into the U.S.

Approximately, 35,000 people have left safe havens to be resettled into permanent residences.

While they wait to be resettled, the refugees go to job fairs, do recreational activities, take English classes and even do art therapy to work through the trauma.

"Sometimes I use the translator to tell them, 'you're gonna be ok. It's gonna be fine,'" said Senior Airman Monica Alvas who is an Air Force reservist.

Reassurance like that gives the refugees hope as they start their new lives. It's a life much different than what they knew in Afghanistan.

"Here you're seen," said Hussainzada. "People see you. People care about what you're saying. They care about what you're feeling. They care."