Albuquerque doctor Sharmin Dharas and her husband Shams Mehri can barely sleep as they wait for a call that so far has not arrived.
“We cannot think of a normal life,” said Dharas, describing the anguish as she and her husband await news of their extended family in Afghanistan. “We don’t even think [about our] Mental Health. We’re literally on adrenaline and off we go, go, go. We have less than five days left and God knows if we will even meet the deadline. ”
Dharas and Mehri are desperate to know if more than 100 extended family members – some of whom have worked for Americans in Kabul – will be among those flown to safety as the Taliban take control of the country.
As the deadline for Americans and some Afghans to leave quickly, a senior White House official confirmed on Friday that some of the thousands of evacuees flown out of the country will be temporarily housed at Holloman Air Force Base in County D ‘Otero.
Dharas said on Friday that the situation was increasingly dire as the deadline for the US withdrawal approached without a word from those close to him.
Unable to sleep, Dharas said she spent every moment battling cell service blackouts in an attempt to contact life-threatening loved ones and government officials who may be able to facilitate their escape. .
They spoke to a cousin four days ago, she said. He told them it was no longer safe to contact him via Facebook messaging. Every conversation, she said, is treated as if it could be the last.
“Our family is literally being hunted down [by the Taliban]”Dharas said in a telephone interview.” They have to move from house to house. They’re emailing us asking for help … and they’re out of resources now. “
Dharas is from Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Tanzania. Merhi, an engineer, is an Afghan refugee whose family crossed mountain ranges on donkeys to seek asylum in Pakistan and later Quebec, Canada, via the United Nations in the early 2000s. They fled the persecution because of their status as religious and ethnic minorities.
They are Hazara by ethnicity and belong to the Ismaili Shia Islamic sect, as opposed to the Taliban who are largely made up of Pashtuns who follow Islamic Sharia law.
Not only are their religious and political views different from those of the majority, but the Hazaras are visibly different – they have more Asian traits due to their membership in the Mongol Empire – and have been historically persecuted in their own country.
Because of this story, Dharas said, the Hazara were more willing to help the United States, making them even more likely to be targeted by Taliban extremists who have taken back control of the country.
Merhi’s cousin, who worked as a translator for the US government, had a bounty on his head before he could escape the country in 2013 with several family members, Dharas said.
But many family members who would qualify for special immigrant visas because of their work as housekeepers or cooks for U.S. personnel remain in the country fearing for their lives.
“We have an aunt standing right at the airport gate, and she saw the bombing yesterday,” she said, referring to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Kabul.
Dharas said the family were working with congressional delegates from New Mexico, including Representative Melanie Stansbury, Senator Martin Heinrich and Senator Ben Ray Luján to provide the names and identifying information of 136 relatives whose lives are in danger in the hope that they will be among those rescued by US forces.
Authorities call the departure from Afghanistan the biggest airlift in history.
But she said they only heard from one person who had a flight out of the country and was unable to confirm details.
Dharas said she couldn’t help but think that by identifying her family members for relief, she could also be putting their lives at risk if the spreadsheet she provided fell into the hands of the Taliban. .
“You just don’t know who to trust,” she said. “Especially after yesterday, we have no idea who to trust.”
Dharas said that she and her husband – both 35 and parents of one child – feel safe giving their own names only because his last name was legally changed when he fled the country. Afghanistan years ago.
Holloman is the fifth military base to be identified as a destination for refugees fleeing the Taliban after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The other four facilities that will accommodate refugees include Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ; Fort McCoy. Wisconsin; Fort Lee. Virginia.,; and Fort Bliss in El Paso. According to some reports, some evacuees are being hosted in New Mexico as part of the sprawling Fort Bliss complex, which spans Doña Ana and Otero counties.
Officials have not been able to say how many evacuees have been transferred to New Mexico so far or how many the government plans to arrive here, noting that the military “determines real-time capacity as it goes. that it builds these facilities “.
Officials said three categories of people are being evacuated from Afghanistan, where the United States established a military presence 20 years ago as part of its war on terrorism following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Evacuees include US citizens and green card holders; U.S. allies who are eligible for special immigrant visas – including Afghans who have worked for the U.S. military as translators and interpreters – and “other vulnerable and at-risk Afghans,” according to a press briefing on Friday.
Officials said incoming refugees were flown to countries in Europe and Asia for “biometric and biographical security screens” before arriving in the United States, where they would be tested for COVID -19 upon arrival.
The United States is “figuring out how to provide vaccines” to refugees, an official said on Friday.
Once they arrive at military bases, officials said, evacuees will be put in contact with resettlement agencies, which can help them begin to establish a life in the United States and determine “where it makes sense to go. go”.
The goal, an official said, is to get people to the facilities and get them out as quickly as possible “because others are waiting.”
“The goal [is] not to let them spend months on these sites, ”said an official.
Officials said where refugees build their new lives will not depend on where they first arrive in the country, but where it makes sense for them to settle. Officials said they would take into account variables such as family ties and job skills.
Shane Mulligan, employment specialist at Lutheran Family Services, the only official provider of resettlement services in New Mexico, does not have contact with any of the incoming refugees, but expects to do so at some point.
“Everything is working out and remains very uncertain,” he said, “but we certainly expect 200 refugees to arrive here.”
Mulligan said many of them will be settled in Albuquerque, but some could also be settled in Santa Fe or Las Cruces, depending on their immigration status, which dictates the services they receive.
The agency is following a delicate line in resettling refugees, Mulligan added, seeking to help them integrate into their new homes while ensuring they retain a sense of cultural integrity.
“We want them to be able to take full care of themselves and be happy in the United States, but also to retain their identity,” he said. “They need to have autonomy over their own lives and a connection to their own stories.”
Part of the agency’s job, Mulligan said, “is to find ways for them to assimilate and learn elements of the new culture … but also to find meaningful ways to continue to treat parts of their culture. culture that are important to them “.
He called the resettlement a “generational effort,” adding that officials hope to build a community that can accommodate newcomers both socially and economically, “and also allows refugees to embark on a path where they do not stay. not stuck in generational poverty or succumbing to societal pressures. ”
Dharas said she and her husband are wondering if their extended family will find a way to continue the family line.
“At least our children have the opportunity to have a next generation,” she said, “but we don’t know about our cousins, if they will have an opportunity for another generation. They are literally trying to. annihilate us. “