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Oct 6, 2021
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Some 13,000 Afghan refugees are on an Army base in rural Wisconsin. Following the Taliban takeover of their country, they await resettlement in communities across the U.S. Yesterday, we spoke with one of them, a journalist who worked for NPR in Afghanistan. Today, NPR's Tom Bowman has more from Fort McCoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER BALL BOUNCING)

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Young Afghans join with American soldiers for a soccer game at this sprawling base. One of the goaltenders is a young Afghan girl wearing a black hijab and blue jeans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting) Goal.

(CHEERING)

BOWMAN: Nearby, Afghan women hang laundry on chain-link fences. Kids play frisbee or scoot past on bikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

BOWMAN: Brigadier General Christopher Norrie talks about the Afghans being housed here.

CHRISTOPHER NOORIE: We have guests here who have served and sacrificed with us, who helped us, many here previously wounded in combat, all hopeful for a better future.

BOWMAN: It's something of a small town. Eight children were born recently. There are all night grab-and-go meals. A few dozen women sign up for yoga. And, of course, there are English classes for the new arrivals taught by an Afghan professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ENGLISH PROFESSOR: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ENGLISH PROFESSOR: (Non-English language spoken). Thank you.

BOWMAN: Some showed up with nothing but the clothes on their backs, like Allah Mohammad Tariqi (ph), who's 31. He's gaunt, with tired red eyes. He stands outside his barracks with a cluster of men.

ALLAH MOHAMMAD TARIQI: (Non-English language spoken).

BOWMAN: The weather is great, and the soldiers' treatment is amazing, says Tariqi. At the beginning, the meals were different from what I eat, but it's gotten better, he says. Initially, the food vendor served shrimp, not something many Afghans eat. Several refugees say, now it's more in line with Afghan taste - dates, fruits and vegetables. Much of the talk here is centered on this question - when can we leave and begin our new lives in America? Bilal Ahmad (ph) follows us and whispers that there are too many refugees at Fort McCoy.

BILAL AHMAD: Following the process. Like, more than one month that we have stayed here, yet there's no progress.

BOWMAN: No progress. But officials insist the resettlement effort will soon pick up. Fort McCoy has the most Afghans among the eight Army bases housing them around the nation.

SKYE JUSTICE: We are now at a point at Fort McCoy, where we're beginning to resettle larger numbers of people. In the coming days and weeks, be resettling hundreds and then building from there.

BOWMAN: That's Skye Justice, a State Department official who says a number of Afghans will likely remain in Wisconsin.

JUSTICE: Wisconsin has offered up an initial tranche of 399 places - resettlement agencies in Madison, around Green Bay and in Milwaukee.

BOWMAN: Still, officials say the resettlement effort could stretch into next March, as they process paperwork and search for states and cities willing to accept tens of thousands of Afghans. So military officials here privately say they're urging the Afghans to be patient and prepare for a long, cold winter. They'll convert some buildings into play areas for children. For now, the Afghan refugees dream for the day when they can leave - whenever that will be.

SAMIR AMIN: I'm looking forward to move to Virginia, where I have a job offer already with one of the contractors from the U.S. Department of State.

BOWMAN: Samir Amin (ph) worked as a program coordinator in the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He's here with his wife and two kids, ages 5 and 2.

AMIN: I should do well in my job in the community. I'm very looking forward to meet new people, and I'm looking forward to contribute to the society.

BOWMAN: But Farzana Mohammadi's (ph) future is less certain. She's just 24 and sits in a wheelchair. She was stricken with polio when she was 2 years old. Her passion? To play basketball.

FARZANA MOHAMMADI: Yeah, so (laughter) basketball is my love.

BOWMAN: She escaped with her Paralympic team, and she says she wants to go to Seattle to play. Her parents remain in Kabul.

MOHAMMADI: I have one brothers and three sisters. I always taking care of my family, and I'm missing.

BOWMAN: But she has dreams.

MOHAMMADI: I go to the college. I think I can make a good future for myself.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BOWMAN: Inside a massive warehouse, there are boxes of dresses, scarves, coats, baby clothing and shoes. Fifteen-year-old Zikra Akhbar (ph) is here with her younger siblings. She's helping her sister find a jacket. The girls dig through piles of clothes.

This is a nice purple one. Do you like this coat?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No.

BOWMAN: No? (Laughter) What color are you looking for?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Pink.

BOWMAN: Oh, pink.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

BOWMAN: Espressos and lattes are being prepared this busy morning at Meraki Cafe in Sparta, just minutes away from Fort McCoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

BOWMAN: The door dings every time a customer walks in. Like most mornings, 73-year-old Dave Brooker is here. He's a former Marine.

DAVE BROOKER: I started working at Fort McCoy when the Cuban refugees came in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

BOWMAN: He says he remembers when Wisconsin welcomed Hmong fighters from Vietnam, who helped him and other Marines in that war.

BROOKER: I'm not opposed to their resettlement in the area.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

BROOKER: And I think diversification is not a bad thing.

BOWMAN: But not everyone feels the same way. Sparta is fairly conservative, and there are mixed feelings about the Afghans. The town has fewer than 10,000 residents, a few thousand below the nearby Afghans. Two young Afghan men at Fort McCoy were arrested recently, one for hitting his wife, another for molesting two young boys. There's been a lot of misinformation and rumors about the Afghans. Eric Borison (ph), an engineer, welcomes the Afghans but wonders if rural Wisconsin is the right place for them.

ERIC BORISON: I can't imagine that very many Afghanis would want to settle in this area in the first place. There is a lack of cultural familiarity for them, and they would prefer to be with people that are more like them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE PASSING)

BOWMAN: Back at Fort McCoy, the question of assimilating is something Nasir Ahmed (ph) doesn't worry about. He's just happy to be far away from the Taliban, who killed some of his neighbors and sent him on the run. Now he wants a new life with his wife and three kids. Nasir took part in combat operations with the 101st Airborne in southern Afghanistan, where he worked with Lieutenant Colonel Joe Mickley as an interpreter. By chance, Mickley was sent to Fort McCoy to help, and the two reunited after last seeing each other 10 years ago in Kandahar. Now, Mickley will help him resettle near his home base in Kentucky.

JOE MICKLEY: I think it'll be OK, but the most important thing is we'll be there to help him have a good transition and a good settlement.

BOWMAN: Nasir wraps his arm around Mickley's shoulder.

NASIR AHMED: The only thing I know about Kentucky - because I have someone there, I'm not nervous. I'm not thinking about anything because I have my best friend, my best brother.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Fort McCoy, Wisc.

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