8NEWS, JACKIE DEFUSCO
We’re getting a first look inside Central Virginia’s Fort Pickett Army Base since thousands of Afghan refugees arrived.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger is the first member of Congress to visit the base since Afghans began staying there about two weeks ago, according to her office.
Media wasn’t allowed inside for the tour but Spanberger’s staff provided photos.
There are about 5,000 Afghans at Fort Pickett now. They’re planning for up to 10,000 at the present moment, though the situation is fluid.
Spanberger said she observed barrack-style housing where men and women are separated, with the exception of younger children. She said there are also trailers being brought in for family units. Additionally, she said they are building a large cafeteria, as well as play and religious spaces.
“I’m simply overwhelmed by the images I saw today with my own eyes. The folks we saw today in long lines and barracks and waiting to be processed are the same folks we saw on television fleeing for their lives,” said Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn, who also went on the tour.
Spanberger said every Afghan that arrives here goes through security checks and biographical screenings to identify them.
“This has all been thrown together in two weeks so there are going to be some imperfections but I feel a lot better as the Mayor of Blackstone about security,” Coleburn said.
Recent reports that refugees who have not completed the vetting process have been free to leave Fort Pickett using ride share apps like Uber have stirred controversy and community concerns.
“These evacuees are not detainees. They are not prisoners. They have freedom. But if they leave the base before they are processed and have gone through the proper protocol, they forfeit their right to get a visa and—unlike a lot of undocumented immigrants who are here—the government knows their name,” said Coleburn.
Asked if any refugees have left the base anyway, Spanberger said, “What was clarified is that there have been a number of families and individuals who have left but those are folks who are actual U.S. citizens who escaped out of Kabul with other evacuees.”
Coleburn said he was assured that those pick ups have been approved.
Spanberger said there have been two site security surveys. She said the results of one are coming back tonight and any necessary adjustments will be made after that.
“We went through many questions about security parameters and every question I had was answered fully and completely,” Spanberger said
Coleburn said, when processing first started, they only had one computer to work with. He said they’ve since increased that to seven to speed things up.
Spanberger said children make up a large share of the refugees at Fort Pickett. She said several babies have been born just in the last two weeks.
“They are pushing out 5,000 diapers a day because there are so many little children and families who have come to the United States to begin their life,” Spanberger said.
“There were small American flags drawn in crayon on the wall,” Coleburn said.
The base is in need of diapers, baby formula and other supplies.
Team Rubicon is managing the receipt of donations. Spanberger said people can also give through Red Cross, Walmart and Amazon Wish List.
Additional volunteers are also needed. Spanberger said people are coming from other states to help and more military service members are being brought in to focus on medical screenings.
Coleburn said there have been 3,400 COVID tests given so far and tests are administered every three days. He said there have been nine positive tests so far and those people a kept in a separate area to quarantine. Vaccinations for coronavirus are also available to Afghans.
“Because we do have constraints on our local hospital systems that was a primary focus,” Spanberger said. “I’m really pleased with the work happening.”
Spanberger said it’s still not clear how many of these refugees will stay in the community or in the Virginia. She said there are resettlement agencies based in each state that will judge each community’s capacity to accept families.