‘Heart of gold’: Refugees share stories during Atterbury briefing

CAMP ATTERBURY — Strength and bravery rang out clearly as the story unfolded.

Nahid Sharifi had been forced to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban closed in on her home. In the chaos, she was separated from her family, first from her mother, brother and sister at the airport in Kabul, then from her sister and family during a change of flight in Germany. She had arrived in the United States scared and alone, with the life she had known in tatters.

But as a refugee at Camp Atterbury, she finally had a vision of what her new life in the United States could look like.

She was thankful for the overwhelming support she and her fellow Afghan refugees had received thus far.

“The people of the United States have a heart of gold. Thank you so much for everything,” Sharifi said. “In a difficult situation, they never left Afghan people alone.”

For the past three months, about 7,200 refugees from Afghanistan have come to Camp Atterbury facing similar situations. Through the mission known as Operation Allies Welcome, the goal has been to help the guests prepare and establish their new beginning in communities throughout the country.

Officials involved with the process — from the Department of Homeland Security to the resettlement organization Exodus Refugee Immigration to Gov. Eric Holcomb — hosted a briefing Tuesday to shed light on the scope of the operation.

With resettlement processes at Camp Atterbury expected to wind down around the start of 2022, much work has been accomplished, but much remains.

“There’s been so much pride and passion here, and it’s a reminder of all of our purpose while we’re here is to help one another, to help our neighbors,” Holcomb said. “As far away as they’ve come from, they are here at home in Indiana and in this country.”

Operation Allies Welcome is the coordinated effort across the federal government to support and resettle vulnerable Afghans, including those who worked on behalf of the United States. The work of processing and vetting those refugees has taken place at eight military bases throughout the country, including the southern Johnson County base.

Thus far, approximately 82,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the United States since late August, including 7,200 who have come to Camp Atterbury, said Aaron Batt, Department of Homeland Security federal coordinator assigned to Camp Atterbury. They’ve been provided shelter, food, medical care and resources as they’ve gone through the refugee resettlement process.

At the same time, millions of donations, from money to clothing to furniture to anything else the refugees have needed, flowed from the community.

“We want to continue to thank Hoosiers for their generosity and hospitality. The number of donated goods and hours is amazing,” Batt said.

More than 30,000 refugees have been resettled, including 250 who have started their new lives in Indiana cities such as Indianapolis, Bloomington, Muncie and South Bend.

“We’ve never on Hoosier soil carried out something of this scope,” Holcomb said.

Cole Varga, the executive director at the Indianapolis nonprofit Exodus Refugee Immigration, shared how resettlement unfolds. He illustrated how the Afghan refugees have been given medical treatment, provided with homes and helped with the bureaucratic maze of paperwork they’ve faced.

After being placed in their new homes, Exodus will continue to provide support, in everything from enrolling children in schools to starting English classes to finding transportation to jobs.

“It could be six months with some, five years for others, and we’ll be there all along the way if people need to come back and ask for help,” Varga said.

Employment has been a major focus of Indiana officials for those who have come through Camp Atterbury. The Indiana Department of Workforce Development has worked to find which skills the refugees have already, and what work might best suit them in the United States.

They’ve provided language skills, computer tutorials and work training.

“We hope we’re doing everything we can to set them and the employers up for success,” said Fred Payne, Indiana Workforce Development Commissioner.

For the refugees who have arrived at Camp Atterbury, this support has been invaluable.

Saraya Wakili was evacuated from Afghanistan three months ago, and arrived in the United States on Sept. 3. She has been separated from her family, which has been hard, but at the same time, she’s happy to be in a safe place, she said through a translator.

A journalist in her home country, she has been spending her time at Camp Atterbury creating a YouTube channel documenting her time in Indiana.

The care that volunteers, officials and staff at Camp Atterbury have shown her has made a bad situation better.

“As we are far away from our homes, we’re depressed, but they’re coming every day to teach us with a smile on their faces. On behalf of the Afghan people, I’m thankful for them,” she said through a translator.

Sharifi arrived in the United States on Sept. 5, following a journey that she described as “long and scary.” She was unsure what had happened to the family members she had been separated from until arriving in Washington D.C., where she was able to make contact.

Recounting those frightening days, Sharifi had to pause, overwhelmed with emotion.

Her husband, who had been a presidential employee in Afghanistan, had left the country in 2020. Here in the United States, the couple reunited. Having come through Camp Atterbury as part of the resettlement process, Sharifi plans to continue work on a doctorate degree at Indiana University-Bloomington.

The path here has been difficult. But she is thankful for the opportunity she now has.

“I hope that I can make the world around me a better place for others like me,” she said.