Albuquerque doctor Sharmin Dharas and her husband, Shams Mehri, can barely sleep as they wait for a call that, so far, has not come.
“We can’t think about regular life,” Dharas said, describing the angst as she and her husband await word from their extended family in Afghanistan. “We’re not even thinking [about our] mental health. We are literally on adrenaline and go, go, go. We have less than five days to go, and God knows if we will even make the deadline.”
Dharas and Mehri are desperately waiting to hear whether more than 100 extended family members — some who worked for Americans in Kabul — will be among those flown to safety as the Taliban assumes control of the country.
As the deadline for Americans and some Afghans to leave quickly approaches, senior White House confirmed Friday some of the thousands of evacuees being airlifted out of the country will be housed temporarily at Holloman Air Force Base in Otero County.
Dharas said Friday the situation feels more dire each day as the deadline for the U.S. withdrawal draws nearer with no word from loved ones.
Unable to sleep, Dharas said she spends every moment battling rolling cell service blackouts in attempts to communicate with relatives whose lives are at risk and government officials who may be able to facilitate their escape.
They spoke to one cousin four days ago, she said. He told them it was not safe to contact him by Facebook messenger anymore. Each conversation, she said, is treated as if it could be the last.
“Literally our family is being tracked [by the Taliban],” Dharas said in a phone interview. “They have to move from house to house. They are sending us emails begging for help … and they have no resources now.”
Dharas is from Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Tanzania. Merhi, an engineer, is an Afghan refugee whose family crossed mountain ranges on donkeys to seek asylum in Pakistan and later in Quebec, Canada, via the United Nations in the early 2000s. They fled persecution based on their status as religious and ethnic minorities.
They are Hazara by ethnicity and belong to the Shia Ismaili sect of Islam, as opposed to the Taliban which is largely made up of Pashtuns who follow Sharia Islamic law.
Not only are their religious and political views different from the majority, Hazara people are visibly different — they have more Asian features due to being descendants of the Mongolian empire — and have been historically persecuted in their own country.
Because of this history, Dharas said, Hazara were more willing to help the U.S., making them even more likely to be targeted by Taliban hardliners who have resumed control of the country.
Merhi’s cousin, who worked as a translator for the U.S. government, had a bounty on his head before he was able to escape the country in 2013 with several family members, Dharas said.
But numerous family members who would qualify for special immigrant visas by virtue of their work as housekeepers or cooks for U.S. personnel remain in the country, fearing for their lives.
“We have one aunt who is just standing at the gate of the airport, and she saw the bombing yesterday,” she said, referring to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Kabul.
Dharas said the family has been working with New Mexico congressional delegates, including Rep. Melanie Stansbury, Sen. Martin Heinrich and Sen. Ben Ray Luján to provide names and identifying information of 136 relatives whose lives are in danger in hopes they’ll be among those rescued by U.S. forces.
Officials are calling the departure from Afghanistan the largest airlift in history.
But she said they’ve only heard from one person who has a flight out of the country and haven’t been able to confirm the details.
Dharas said she can’t shake the feeling that by identifying her family members for rescue she could also be endangering their lives if the spreadsheet she provided falls into Taliban hands.
“You just don’t know who to trust,” she said. “Especially after yesterday, we have no clue who to trust.”
Dharas said she and her husband — both 35 and the parents of one child — feel safe giving their own names only because his family name was legally changed when he fled Afghanistan years ago.
Holloman is the fifth military base to be identified as a destination for refugees fleeing the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The other four installations that will hold refugees include Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Fort McCoy. Wis.; Fort Lee. Va.,; and Fort Bliss in El Paso. According to some reports, some evacuees are being housed in New Mexico as part of Fort Bliss’ sprawling complex, which extends into Doña Ana and Otero counties.
Officials were unable to say how many evacuees have been transferred to New Mexico so far or how many the government anticipates will arrive here, noting the military is “figuring out capacity in real time as they build out these facilities.”
Officials said three categories of people are being flown out of Afghanistan, where the U.S. established a military presence 20 years ago as part of its war on terror following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Evacuees include U.S. citizens and green card holders; U.S. allies who are eligible for special immigrant visas — including Afghans who worked for the U.S. military as translators and interpreters — and “other vulnerable and at-risk Afghans,” according to a news briefing Friday.
Officials said incoming refugees are being flown to countries in Europe and Asia for “biometric and biographic security screens” before arriving in the United States, where they will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.
The U.S. is “in the process of determining how to offer vaccines” to the refugees, an official said Friday.
Once they arrive at the military bases, officials said, evacuees will be connected with resettlement agencies, which can help them begin to establish lives in the U.S. and figure out “where it makes sense to go.”
The goal, one official said, is to get the people to the installations and moving them out again as quickly as possible “because others are waiting.”
“The goal [is] not to have them spending anything like months at these sites,” one official said.
Officials said where the refugees make their new lives will not be dependent on where they first arrive in the country but where it makes sense for them to settle. Officials said they would take into account variables such as family ties and employment skills.
Shane Mulligan, an employment specialist at Lutheran Family Services, the only formal provider of resettlement services in New Mexico, hasn’t connected to with any of the incoming refugees but expects to at some point.
“Everything is unfolding and still super uncertain,” he said, “but we are definitely expecting like 200 refugees to arrive here.”
Mulligan said many of those will be settled in Albuquerque, but some could also be settled in Santa Fe or Las Cruces, depending on their immigration status, which dictates which services they receive.
The agency walks a delicate line in resettling refugees, Mulligan added, seeking to help them integrate into their new homes while ensuring they retain a sense of cultural integrity.
“We want them to be able to take care of themselves fully and be happy in the United States but also maintain their identities,” he said. “They need to have autonomy over their own lives and connection to their own stories.”
Part of the agency’s work, Mulligan said “is finding ways for them to assimilate and learn elements of the new culture … but also find meaningful ways to continue processing parts of their culture that are important to them.”
He called resettlement a “generational effort,” adding officials hope to build a community that can accommodate newcomers both socially and economically, “and also allows refugees to engage in a path where they don’t get stuck in generational poverty or succumb to society’s pressures.”
Dharas said she and her husband wonder whether their extended family will find a way to continue the family line.
“At least our kids have the opportunity for a next generation,” she said, “but we don’t know about our cousins, if they will have an opportunity for another generation. They are literally trying to wipe us out.”