What Life Is Like for Afghan Refugees at NJ’s ‘Liberty Village’

Though grateful for a safe landing in the U.S., thousands of refugees—in limbo on a sprawling Pine Barrens military base—now face resettlement challenges.

Illustration by Margaret Riegel

A makeshift town—larger than many in New Jersey—took shape at a sprawling military base in the Pine Barrens, as more than 13,000 Afghan refugees awaited permanent resettlement around the United States by late fall.

The refugees began arriving at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst—in the geographic center of New Jersey—in late August as part of the frantic airlift from Kabul during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most left their country with just the clothes on their backs. In New Jersey, these refugees have been housed in barracks and large tents typically used for deployments, mostly sleeping on bunk beds, says Air Force Capt. Sarah J. Johnson. The goal, she says, was “to make it, as much as possible, like a place our guests can call home for a little while.”

About 2,000 service members were assigned to the operation at the Joint Base, dubbed “Liberty Village” and one of eight military installations around the country that has hosted tens of thousands of Afghan refugees since the airlift began, according to the Department of Defense.

The federal government allocated more than $1.5 billion for the Afghan resettlement, one of the largest efforts of its kind in at least a generation. Spanning Burlington and Ocean counties, the Joint Base has served as a way station for refugees before. About 30,000 Hungarians came through McGuire Air Force Base following the 1956 revolution, and 4,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo were housed at Fort Dix in 1999. Hundreds of Haitians were airlifted to the Joint Base following an earthquake in 2010.

Today, federal and state agencies have partnered with nonprofit groups and volunteers to pull it off. On base, the military provided meals, shelter and basic toiletries. Legions of New Jerseyans stepped up to meet other needs, from the immediate–like winter coats, diapers and strollers—to the more complex tasks of finding housing and jobs for the refugees. There were volunteer translators and English teachers, clerics, attorneys, job coaches, barbers and beauticians.

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By the end of October, the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton in West Windsor had collected 30 truckloads of items to the base, says Lindsey Stephenson, a member of the mosque. “I think people felt that God has put them so close to us, that it’s up to us to provide what we can,” she says. Stephenson speaks Farsi and has served as a translator. Many of the refugees worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan and speak some English while others speak Dari (the Afghan dialect of Farsi), and Pashto. On Halloween weekend, the mosque collected thermoses so the Afghans could more easily drink hot tea, which plays a big part in their culture and family life.

Powered by generators, the large tents—which each house about 400 people—are heated but provide limited privacy for families. Though grateful for the safe landing, many refugees have grown discouraged, aid workers say, as they wait for the immigration and work authorization paperwork and resources that will allow them to establish legal residency. We’re told refugees were largely traumatized by their abrupt departure and worried about being able to reunite with family left behind. “Everybody’s path has been jarring and unexpected,” says Alain Mentha, executive director of Welcome Home Jersey City, a nonprofit working on resettlement. “The first few months are an emotional rollercoaster for families in refugee camps.”

Time on the base has varied. The refugees generally were assigned to designated resettlement agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth, that help them find and furnish apartments, apply for jobs and access social services. Refugees leave the base once plans, paperwork, background checks and health screenings are complete. All were required to have age-appropriate vaccines, including those for Covid-19, polio and measles.

The refugees receive some federal cash assistance for rent, food and travel. Local resettlement agencies get a one-time payment of $2,275 for each refugee they help, of which $1,225 is available to fund “direct assistance needs” like housing, according to the State Department. The refugees also may be eligible for other federal benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and job training, and may qualify for state programs as well.

They face a challenging path in the United States. They’ll need to learn English, get driver’s licenses and jobs, enroll in school and adjust to cultural differences. The goal is for refugees to be self-sufficient in 90 days, but aid workers say it generally takes years, not months, to truly resettle.

About 2,800 of the Afghan refugees had transitioned off the Joint Base by mid-November, says Johnson. There is no firm closing date for Liberty Village; Governor Murphy estimated it could operate for up to a year. The majority of those leaving the base have gone elsewhere in the country, where they may have family or the cost of living is cheaper than it is in New Jersey. There are substantial Afghan communities in California, Texas and Virginia, which have grown since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

In New Jersey, several agencies and some individual sponsors are working on resettlement efforts. The task is complicated by the pandemic, the state’s competitive rental market, and resettlement infrastructure being dismantled under the Trump administration, aid workers say.

A number of families will go to Jersey City, says Mentha, others to the Paterson and Elizabeth areas. The Princeton Interfaith Refugee committee is placing five families in Central Jersey in a program run with a local synagogue. The local mosque is making welcome baskets.

Back on base, efforts have continued to make the refugees comfortable and secure, including hosting their first Thanksgiving celebration and other activities. Marine veteran Katryna Novelozo has organized recreational activities for some of the estimated 3,000 children on base. Like others who served in Afghanistan, she struggled emotionally with the U.S. withdrawal. Volunteering at Liberty Village has provided some clarity. “It was a way to provide closure and make new memories,” said Novelozo, now a realtor in Central Jersey. “It helped me realize that this is the next chapter with our relationship.”

Patricia Alex is a writer who worked for many years as a reporter and editor at The Record in Bergen County.

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