On a military base in South Jersey, an Afghan woman plans a new life. ‘I’m starting from zero, like a newborn.’
She doesn’t know where she’ll go, which state or city. But hopes she gets there soon.
Her job, her home, her friends, her country.
Her parents are in hiding in Afghanistan. And she’s here in America, living on a military base in South Jersey with thousands of other evacuees. The first time she heard the name “New Jersey” was the day she arrived, six weeks ago.
Hili Chakhansuri, 30, can’t overcome the incredulity of having been hurtled out of her homeland and across the globe. That it actually happened, and so fast, the government collapsing, her life endangered by her work supporting the Americans.
Her mother and father insisted she try to board an evacuation flight.
Pray for me. Those were the last words she said to them before heading into the chaotic crowds outside the Kabul airport.
“I’m starting from zero, like a newborn,” Chakhansuri said in a phone call from Joint Base MaGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where she’s among some 9,500 Afghans awaiting resettlement in the U.S. “But there is a hope. I came to a place that I can see hope. I can see a future for myself as a woman.”
Today about 50,000 Afghans are living on eight U.S. military installations, and it’s uncertain when they may start moving to permanent homes. Immigration processing is taking time, and the nationwide housing crunch has limited the availability of affordable apartments.
Chakhansuri doesn’t know where she’ll go, which state or city. But hopes she gets there soon.
She hasn’t stepped off the base since she arrived on Aug. 26. If you leave, she said, you can’t come back. When she looks around, she sees parking lots, tents, trees, buildings, soldiers.
She’s alone, not married, doesn’t have a partner or family members with her. She lacks what in humanitarian circles is called an “American tie,” that is, a close contact in the United States who will assist in her resettlement.
“I came somewhere I have never been,” she said.
In Afghanistan, Chakhansuri worked for the government, a chief of staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, her rise an achievement in a country where women have traditionally been held down and kept out.
Her work placed her in counter-terrorism meetings where officials strategized to defeat the Taliban. She became known to the insurgents, she said.
In escaping, she secured her safety but surrendered her dream — to become an ambassador.
Now she’s pursuing a new dream, to be active in important issues of the day, perhaps working in news media, immigrant-aid or international relations, somewhere she can “raise the voices of the women who were kept silent back home.”
She sets a morning alarm on her cell phone. Boredom is an enemy, and her ability to speak six languages — Pashto, Dari, Baluchi, Urdu, Farsi and English — puts her in demand among both Afghans and Americans.
She helps U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staffers with translations, handles interpretations during town-hall-style meetings, volunteers to write signs in different languages, some as simple as “Entry” and “Exit,” others the instructions for internet access.
Often she’s called to the medical unit. Afghan women traditionally don’t like to discuss personal health issues with men, she said, so she serves as a go-between. She translated the intense conversation between a doctor and a woman who was giving birth.
Some nights her legs are sore from being on her feet all day.
“I have this — how can I say it in English? — my mind is relaxed that at least I did something for people today,” she said. “At least I’m trying to reduce their stress, because I’m under stress. By helping others, I feel better. It gives me peace. … Because I don’t have anyone here, I have all these people here as my family.”
She shares a room with a woman whose husband is stuck in Qatar, site of a first-stop evacuation center.
Outside, two tents serve as mosques, one for men, one for women. People from different tribes, social classes and religious sects are mixed together, Chakhansuri said. Back home they would fight. On the base they tolerate one another.
Two or three couples have gotten married.
Everyone asks the same question: “When are we going?”
Inquirer requests to visit the Joint Base, which sprawls across rural Burlington and Ocean counties, have not been granted. Government officials offered to make an evacuee available to chat, and Chakhansuri was willing to be interviewed.
She’s afraid for her family in Afghanistan. Four sisters managed to escape the country with their husbands, but one sister and her brother are home with her parents. She’s been unable to try to get them out, or even, with banking networks restricted, to send them money from her savings.
Her father — “my hero” — dares not step outside. He served in the government, in the Ministry for Peace.
He always worried about his daughters’ futures. As a girl, Chakhansuri was educated in Iran, where the family fled in the early 1990s. Her father was then a military officer, sought by the Taliban. The family returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
As a teenager, Chakhansuri became a social activist, taking English classes, representing girls in educational associations and participating in radio broadcasts.
Neighbors objected, she said. They believed a girl shouldn’t leave the home, much less share her opinions. Her parents supported her.
She earned a scholarship to International Islamic University Malaysia, the public college in Kuala Lumpur. Now she wants to earn a master’s degree in the United States, but isn’t sure how to make that happen.
She nearly didn’t get out of Afghanistan.
She had no Special Immigrant Visa, nor any official approval to leave.
Her hope: Acquaintances, an Afghan family who are American citizens living in the U.S. That family’s father already was trying to get relatives evacuated from Afghanistan, and he contacted the State Department on her behalf, pleading, “This girl is stuck, her life is in danger!”
A U.S. Marine phoned Chakhansuri from inside the airport: We can get you out of the country, but you must come to us. She was given a password.
At that point in August the airport was surrounded by thousands of desperate people.
A cousin tried to help her reach an exterior gate, but the crowds were impenetrable and they became separated. Chakhansuri spent hours searching for a way to get inside. Taliban gunmen were everywhere.
People pulled and pushed one another, some fainting, children crushed. Taliban soldiers whipped those in the crowd, screaming, “We come to the cities after 20 years and now you are leaving and running?”
Chakhansuri went home, defeated. Later that day she tried again, with members of the Afghan-American family. They looked for ways around the crowds. Eventually they broke through and located the gate, more like an iron door.
Chakhansuri spoke the code.
The door flew open.
A Marine grabbed her and yanked her forward through the opening. She fell, the Afghan family right behind.
The door slammed shut.
“You made it,” one of the Marines told her.
She felt like crying. Happiness? Fear? She couldn’t tell.
“If you’re on that side of the gate, you’re safe, you have a new life,” Chakhansuri said. “Behind that door there was no hope for me.”
She showed the Marines her diplomatic passport, uncertain if that would grant her passage.
“Welcome to the U.S.,” one told her.
The evacuation plane was so full there was no place to sit. It landed at a processing center in Qatar. From there Chakhansuri was flown on to Germany and to Washington, D.C., then bused to South Jersey.
She’s less interested in where she’ll go next than in what she’ll be able to do there, in gaining opportunities to build her life and career.
“One of my biggest dreams is to help women,” she said. “I want to do something to bring change, not just to make money.”