FORT LEE, Va. – Providing religious accommodation for Afghan evacuees and logistical support to volunteers who are receiving and distributing community donations for the newly arriving individuals are two key contributions the chaplain team here has made to Operation Allies Welcome.
The Department of Defense, through U.S. Northern Command and in support of the Department of Homeland Security, is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees at suitable facilities, in permanent or temporary structures, as quickly as possible. This initiative provides Afghan personnel essential support at secure locations outside Afghanistan. Fort Lee is one of several installations across the nation supporting the effort.
Col. Thomas E. Allen, the installation’s senior command chaplain, discussed the role his team has played since the standup of Task Force Eagle – an assembly of military, DOD Civilian and contract personnel brought together to carry out the OAW support mission at Fort Lee.
“Right away, we knew the Afghan evacuees would need a place for worship and prayer, and they predominantly practice the Islam religion,” Allen said. “The area had to be suitable for daily prayer, which is an important part of their faith.”
The Religious Support Office worked with various entities such as the Directorate of Public Works, Mission Integrated Contracting Command - Fort Lee and Logistics Readiness Center - Fort Lee to establish a tent equipped with air conditioning and the required carpeted flooring for an Islam place of worship. The tent has separate areas for males and females to pray.
“We don’t have an Imam on post, so I consulted with the two senior Muslim chaplains in the Army Chaplain Corps as well as the local Imams in the surrounding community,” Allen said. “With their expertise, we came up with a plan to best facilitate the religious needs of the Afghan evacuees.”
Regarding the RSO’s other major role, Allen said community offers of support have been pouring in since the initial announcement of Afghan evacuees coming to Fort Lee. Those expressing an interest in contributing items to make America’s newest guests feel welcome mostly include church groups, followed by commercial businesses and individuals.
“I had already spoken to some of the State Department’s non-government officials, mostly translators, who had expressed a need for coloring books and crayons for the kids,” Allen said. “I suggested putting together a list of items they needed so we could give it to people who were calling us to ask how they could help.”
The list of needed items not only got larger, but also found traction with posts to social media. That’s when the small notion of collecting coloring books for kids turned into something much larger.
“We started getting calls from all over the place; folks wanting to know what was needed and how they could send stuff,” Allen shared. “Every time the list was updated, more people would reach out to us asking what they could donate.”
To give an idea of the amount received, Allen estimated it was averaging five-to-six truckloads a day – the lion’s share of which came from local mosques, churches and Islamic centers. Once the donations arrived, groups of about 25 volunteers, many of whom are spouses to service members on Fort Lee, sorted and packaged the items. They are then given to the NGOs who hand-deliver them to the Afghan evacuees.
“The feedback we’re receiving daily is that they’re very appreciative and grateful,” said Allen, who then shared one particularly heartwarming account. “Within the last few days, there was a family who had a very young infant, maybe three or four months old, and the mother was carrying this baby everywhere. I got word from the NGOs that they were asking for a stroller, and some Soldiers told me a few had been donated, so that family got what they needed. The mom could finally put the baby down, and they were overjoyed. They kept saying ‘thank you, thank you,’ and they were so appreciative. Those kind of responses are happening every day.”
Donations are at the request of the non-governmental organizations taking part in Operation Allies Welcome. The Fort Lee Religious Support Office is only supporting the NGOs in their efforts.
Those who have questions about items requested on behalf of Afghan evacuees at Fort Lee can call the RSO at (804) 734-6494. A listing of organizations supporting the resettlement effort is available at AfghanPartnerships@state.gov. Similar information is available at www.wrapsnet.org.
Fort Lee is proud to host and aid Afghan evacuees in support of the Operation Allies Welcome, Department of Homeland Security mission.