FORT BENNING, GA – More than 120,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan, after the Taliban seized control of the capital in August. Some of the refugees who made it out of the abject terror and sheer chaos of the fall of Kabul ended up temporarily housed at the remote Dona Ana Range Complex just across the New Mexico border from Fort Bliss, Texas.
With just a few days’ notice, Martin Army Community Hospital’s Department of Behavioral Health Intensive Outpatient Program Chief, Lt. Karnisha Harvey, deployed to the massive tent city. The licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) was tasked with helping the 10,000 Afghani men, women and children who had fled their war-torn home, sometimes with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“I do not speak Pashto,” said Harvey. “I was nervous as I had no idea what to expect. However, I was excited and ready to serve.”
The United States Public Health Services officer was born for this assignment.
“I became a LCSW because the values of the profession coincide with my personal values,” explained Harvey. “I am naturally a caring person. I love to give back and I love being a vehicle to promote change in individuals’ lives when they don’t see a way out of mentally draining and stressful situations.”
Despite the language barrier, the pain and trauma these people suffered came through loud and clear.
“The Afghan refugees had many heart wrenching stories,” said Harvey. “Unfortunately, many of the things we heard, we had no control over or ways to start to fix them.
“Many people were hurt, lost loved ones and were separated from their families in the chaos that took place during the mass evacuation … loved ones who did not make it here to the U.S.”
Armed with a team of five linguists to help with translation, Harvey got to work meeting the urgent and compelling need for mental health services.
“My team and I set up a mental health clinic using an integrated Behavioral Health model,” said Harvey. “Daily, I provided supportive counseling, crisis intervention services, case management services, psychiatric medication referrals and provided education on sustaining good mental health.”
Harvey focused on teaching immediately implementable stress-relieving tools such deep breathing, challenging ineffective thinking and mindfulness. Countless times she just served as a listening ear since she said many felt they had no one with whom to share their struggles or stressors.
“A particular memorable encounter was having a tearful, hopeless guest come in to speak with me and before leaving stating ‘Thank you for being here, you give the people hope.’”
The harrowing journey of one of the linguists who worked alongside Harvey came to epitomize the desperation to escape; the overwhelming drive to risk everything for a chance at healing and a better life. Hameed, whose full name is not being published for security reasons, had been helping the Marines with evacuations at the Kabul airport. The linguist and cultural advisor is a U.S. citizen, but his wife and newborn daughter are not. Because of his long-time affiliation with the U.S. military, it became clear his family was in danger and would have to flee.
His daughter, Liya, was just 16-days-old when video of a Marine leaning precariously over razor wire, grabbing the newborn by her right arm and hoisting her to the relative safety inside the airport compound went viral. His wife, Sadia, still stuck in the crushing melee outside the fence was robbed by the Taliban, but managed to make it through the airport gate several hours later. The three were evacuated on a flight out of Kabul later that day. Sadia and Liya are now living in the Phoenix area, while Hameed continues to help refugees resettle at Dona Ana Range Complex.
“Hameed was extremely forthcoming with many stories about the Taliban and the hardships that people faced in Afghanistan once the Taliban took over,” said Harvey. “He gave us greater insight into the realities of what was really occurring.
“Hameed was also exceptional in sharing information about cultural norms and ways of life in Afghanistan. He educated us on things ranging from the dishes they ate, how women were treated by men, how they felt about mental health services and what certain body language meant.”
Those cultural differences only exacerbated the potential for miscommunication, especially when discussing difficult topics such as suicidal ideations through a translator.
“There were three different dialects being spoken in the camp: Pashto, Dari and Farsi,” said Harvey. “Some of the barriers to having a translator was being unable to determine tone of voice and/or emotion when receiving certain information from the refugees.
“And some of the men were not allowing women to speak for themselves. Therefore, information obtained was not directly from the person in need of care. As a result, all symptoms or issues may not have been addressed.”
Harvey overcame these challenges by emphatically listening and establishing trust and rapport by educating herself on cultural norms.
“For many of us social workers, we work in nice offices with heat and air. Flexibility was a must!” said Harvey. “We worked out of CONEX/ISO-Boxes with limited supplies. We walked around in unpleasant environmental conditions. We had to suspend our discomfort to focus on the bigger mission. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything and I do believe we were able to make a difference.”
Now back from the month-long deployment, the Alabama native is excited to get back to improving service members’ lives through evidence based therapies. She said Fort Benning is her favorite duty station because she gets to personally witness the positive impact group therapy has on Soldiers battling conditions such as anxiety and depression.
“Patients are here with us for 6-8 weeks and we really get to know and bond with them,” said Harvey. “There are a lot of heartfelt moments in group [therapy], many tears shed and much laughter as well. We become their second family. We see many patients come in sad, tearful and overwhelmed … and we get to see them leave with a smile.”