Sgt. Christine Swanson witnessed firsthand the range of emotions Afghan refugees experienced in the days following the Taliban’s Aug. 26 attack at Kabul’s international airport.
One woman, she said, felt distraught about her family’s safety.
“Her family was at the airport during the explosion,” Swanson said. “Her husband got stuck in Kabul and her son was evacuated to a hospital. She had not seen her son or known if he was alive for over a week.”
But Swanson contacted an Air Force medical team with the son’s description. The team found him and brought him to the refugee camp, where the mother waited.
“I’ve never seen such relief as I did that day,” said Swanson, a member of the 457th Civil Affairs Battalion, of the 7th Mission Support Command’s 361st Civil Affairs Brigade.
She, along with the rest of the unit, has helped thousands of Americans and Afghans who were evacuated to Ramstein Air Force Base. Nearly 36,000 refugees went to the base, which has handled as many as 21,000 at once.
“In some ways, we are the first responders towards the Afghans as they flee their homeland,” Capt. Gerard Holodak said. “So there are a lot of fears and tensions, and we have an opportunity to give them hope.”
Soldiers act as liaisons for Afghan refugees
Sgt. 1st Class Bowie Hall said their tasks ranged from locating U.S. citizens and identifying public health risks to teaching English. Trying to meet refugees’ needs also involved acting as liaisons between evacuees and nongovernmental organizations; between those organizations and the Army; and between the Army and the Air Force.
Staff Sgt. Jesse Brinson said they would “be remiss” if they abandoned refugees in their time of need.
“The outcome of this is not what any of us had hoped for,” Brinson said, “but the critical piece here is we have to take care of those who welcomed us and invested years of their own lives to help us.”
People like the young Afghan woman Swanson got to know. That woman, who wants to be a poet and an artist, let Swanson take a picture of one of her poems to translate it.
“Her poem had everyone in tears,” Swanson said.
Swanson felt so moved that she gave the young woman a sketchbook and a set of colored pencils.
“She still emails me photos of poems and drawings she’s done,” Swanson said. “I told her she is the voice of her people in this difficult time and one day, I hope to buy her book.”
While helping strangers, the troops gained valuable personal insights.
“Words matter,” Swanson said, “and words can impact people on a larger level than intended.”
For Brinson, the mission reinforced one of life’s basic tenets.
“I always remember the need to treat others the way I’d wish to be treated,” he said, “regardless of whether or not I am wearing a uniform.”