(RAMSTEIN-MIESENBACH, Germany) — The 8-year old Afghan girl, housed at Ramstein Air Base without her parents, decided to share her dreams with the U.S. staffers running the “youth pod” where she was staying.
She wanted to be a pilot, she told them.
When word got to U.S. Air Force personnel, they decided to let her know that dream could come true. They sent three female U.S. pilots to meet with her, give her a challenge coin and tell her that in the U.S., she could become anything she wanted to be.
The road to becoming one will be difficult, to say the least.
The young girl, whose name was withheld by the State Department to protect her identity, is one of 275 unaccompanied children evacuated from Afghanistan, according to UNICEF, as part of the massive U.S.-led evacuation operation.
Many of them lost their parents in the crowds and were sent on separate military aircraft or chartered flights out of Afghanistan. Others were pushed inside Kabul airport’s fortified walls by parents desperate to give their child a better life than what may come next in Afghanistan as the Taliban take control. And others still were orphaned in the final days of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan — losing parents on the battlefield or in the crush of crowds outside the airport gates.
“They were all traumatized,” said one State Department official who served at Kabul airport as a consular officer. Children there were brought to a reunification center run by the Norwegian government, where some were able to be reunited with family. But as the clock ticked down on evacuation efforts, U.S. officials knew they couldn’t leave any children behind, per the official, taking them all out on evacuation flights to Qatar.
Some children were even separated there, according to the State Department. Safe from the chaos of Kabul airport, one 17-year old boy was told by his parents to guard his family’s luggage. But when the bags were loaded onto an aircraft to Ramstein, in Germany, he went with them — without his family. His family was later flown to Ramstein, and U.S. officials were able to reunite them.
But for the scores of other separated and unaccompanied children, finding close family members to reunify them with is now a challenge. U.S. officials from several agencies are working at military installations in Qatar, Germany and even the U.S. — with technical advice from UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration — amid concerns that some children could be trafficked or others may be claimed as child brides.
Visiting Ramstein Air Base Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with several of the 25 unaccompanied children currently housed there.
“Many, many, many Americans are really looking forward to welcoming you and having you come to the United States,” he told a group of them.
Already, there are at least over several dozen children that have been moved from Ramstein and other U.S. bases to the U.S., where their cases are handed off to the Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Refugee Resettlement — the same agency that has handled cases of unaccompanied minors at the southern U.S. border.
HHS “works to find extended family or other appropriate sponsors to care for the child using established sponsor assessment procedures. Unaccompanied minors not immediately unified with an appropriate caregiver are placed in culturally and age-appropriate facilities,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Friday.
He declined to specify who qualifies as an “appropriate sponsor,” but said judgments are made on a “case-by-case basis.”
Blinken was briefed by one official from USAID at Ramstein, who told him before reporters that 11 minors would be departing Wednesday evening after 21 others had left in the last five days. Virtually all of them have been flown to Dulles International Airport in Virginia and onward from there to military bases across the U.S., where tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are being housed as their cases are processed.
Blinken asked the official where the 11 departing that evening, some of whom he met, would end up, but she said she did not know.
When he met with a group of them earlier that day, he engaged in small talk, asking where they were from and what sports they were playing. He toured some of their sleeping quarters in the pop-up facilities on Ramstein’s tarmac, passing sleeping bags and Spiderman pillows — each facility marked with a cartoon animal on its door to help kids remember their pod, like the giraffe outside Door #7.
Inside one tent, Blinken saw some of the kids’ artwork — drawings and paintings, including an eye, the Genie from Aladdin, boxing gloves and a couple landscapes — a beach and palm tree, a mountain valley.
“I know you all have a lot of questions. There are a lot of people who will look out for you and help you,” he told the group he met on his tour.
One young boy gifted Blinken a T-shirt — and he told them, “I will wear this in Washington and be able to tell everyone where I got it.” They laughed and applauded, according to the print pool of reporters.
Fatella, a 21-year old woman in a head scarf and black and brown checkered shirt, told reporters about how difficult it was to get to Kabul airport, with bullets “flying.” Her father died some years ago, and her mother was unable to escape — left behind in Kabul.
Fatella, along with U.S. authorities, have been in touch with her, but it’s unclear how the U.S. will reunite them with Kabul airport still not functional. Her mother would have to be evacuated from Afghanistan, as State Department officials have made clear they will not send anyone who has been evacuated back into the country.
But among the other challenges with reunification, officials are also concerned about child trafficking. There have been “multiple cases” of young girls being claimed as brides by adult Afghan men at one U.S. base in Wisconsin, according to an internal State Department situation report obtained by ABC News.
The State Department’s task force requested “urgent guidance” after staff at Fort McCoy reported “multiple cases of minor females who presented as ‘married’ to adult Afghan males, as well as polygamous families,” according to the Aug. 27 report.
Child marriage is not uncommon in Afghanistan, but it is illegal under U.S. law, and the State Department sanctions countries that don’t crack down on it and other forms of human trafficking.
U.S. officials in the United Arab Emirates reportedly sent a cable to Washington to warn that some young Afghan girls had been forced into marriages in order to escape Afghanistan and reported being sexually assaulted by these older men, according to the Associated Press, which first reported about the Aug. 27 report.
The State Department declined to confirm whether there have been any cases of forced marriages among Afghan evacuees or other forms of human trafficking, but a spokesperson told ABC News last Friday that they take allegations “seriously” and are “committed to protecting vulnerable individuals globally.”
“We are coordinating across the U.S. government and with domestic and international partners to detect potential cases of forced marriage among vulnerable Afghans at relocation sites and to protect any victims identified,” they added in a statement.
After touring the base in her home state, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., told reporters that an investigation had concluded there were no child brides at Fort McCoy, according to the AP.
ABC News first reported on the concerns about human trafficking, especially of unaccompanied minors, when Qatari officials raised it amid a wider warning about the conditions at U.S. facilities in the country. Qatar’s assistant foreign secretary told U.S. officials there was a “danger of human trafficking in such circumstances and highlighted the cases of unaccompanied minors coming from Kabul,” according to another internal situation report dated Aug. 23.
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