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An Expo Center Outside Washington, D.C., Now Welcomes Airlifted Afghan Refugees


Thousands of refugees from the war in Afghanistan have now arrived in the United States. Most land in Virginia and are brought to the Dulles Expo Center, a cavernous building just outside of Washington, D.C.

NPR's Tom Bowman covered the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan's war from the beginning to now, and he has an exclusive look inside the facility.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Just a few weeks ago, the Dulles Expo Center hosted everything from home shows to flea markets to gun shows. Now it's a welcoming center for the largest airlift of refugees in American history.

TRESSA RAE FINERTY: There are hundreds of State Department, DOD, USAID and TSA in this building at any one time. They're running three shifts a day 24/7. So we're really running a small village here.

BOWMAN: This is Tressa Rae Finerty, deputy executive secretary at the State Department. She's the woman in charge of this enormous effort. And she hasn't gotten a lot of sleep lately. She's showing us around, walking past a cluster of women with children in tow and men on cellphones.

FINERTY: And then this is my favorite spot. Maybe we stop here for just a second.

BOWMAN: Crayon drawings stretch up a tall wall. Boys and girls toss balls with a volunteer from the humanitarian group Save the Children. A huge cardboard box is flattened, laid out and serves as a drawing board.

FINERTY: This is my favorite use of recycled boxes...

BOWMAN: Oh, I see (unintelligible).

FINERTY: ...Probably the best I've ever seen.

BOWMAN: Besides a kids' corner, there are sleeping cots, a cafeteria, a medical unit and a large processing hall that looks like an airport terminal. The flow of people is constant.

FINERTY: We had approximately 29,000 Afghans come through the Dulles space and move on to their forward bases. There are still more than 30,000 to come.

BOWMAN: Everyone is given a wristband based on their medical condition or immigration status. Some of the Afghans here work for the U.S. military or its NATO partners. They were granted a special immigrant visa and a path to citizenship.

FAUZIA: (Non-English language spoken).

BOWMAN: People like Fauzia from Kabul - we're only using her first name for her protection. She's 52 and had a career in telecommunications. Her husband and sons were for years with the U.S. military. Here she is, talking through our interpreter.

FAUZIA: (Non-English language spoken).

FAUZIA TAMANNA: So she says, since my two son and my husband, they served America since 22 years, so they help them. So now she wants better life here, like peaceful life for me and for my kids.

BOWMAN: Other Afghans here might have a long wait and an unknown future, arriving in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. There are young adults separated from their parents with no paperwork. Others have just scraps of paper. They can apply for asylum or wait until Congress offers a special legal status, like it did for those fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Despite the unknowns, young Afghans arriving in America are hopeful.

HAMIDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

BOWMAN: Twenty-two-year-old Hamidullah left a good life in Kabul. But his dad worked for the Americans, and it was no longer safe. Now, he hopes he can continue his education in electrical engineering.

HAMIDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

TAMANNA: He wish so he can continue his studies here because he was in university there. And he says if one day Afghanistan gets better, he wants to go back again.

BOWMAN: They all left Afghanistan, first traveling through the Middle East before arriving at one of several U.S. bases in Europe. That's where the top U.S. officer, Gen. Mark Milley, recently watched the medical and security screening process and met with some Afghans heading for Dulles.

MARK MILLEY: What's your name?

BOWMAN: Officials say of the thousands who went through Ramstein Air Base, only a small number are being detained.


MILLEY: How many real actual suspected members of some sort of terrorist or criminal group, that those numbers have been very low so far. And I have confidence in the FBI. I have confidence in the DHS system.

BOWMAN: General Milley spent years commanding troops in Afghanistan. He acknowledged the war didn't turn out as many of them hoped.

MILLEY: One is a feeling of disappointment of the outcome - you know, painful questions of, was it all worth it? What was it all about? - and the other side, the idea that we just liberated 124,000 people and are giving them an opportunity to be free.

BOWMAN: In the sea of green cots at the Dallas Expo Center, a small shy girl approaches us. She's wearing a pink sweater with gold stars. Her hair is in a neat bun held together by a baby blue scrunchie.

TAMANNA: (Speaking Dari).

MONES: Mones.

BOWMAN: Her name is Mones.

TAMANNA: (Speaking Dari).


TAMANNA: Ten? Good job. She's 10.

BOWMAN: Mones came from Mazar-i-Sharif, a large city close to the Uzbekistan border. She tells us she likes it here. She draws butterflies. Those are her favorites. When we ask her what she wants to tell us most, she has a clear message.

MONES: (Speaking Dari).

TAMANNA: She wish that Talibans can go away forever so our country will be in peace forever.

BOWMAN: That, she says, is her only wish.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Fauzia Tamanna interpreted for this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.