JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST – An Afghan refugee camp here could add another 4,500 residents, according to U.S. Senator Bob Menendez.
“They’re preparing for the possibility of up to 13,000 (refugees),” Menendez said after touring the South Jersey base Friday with Sen. Cory Booker.
Menendez said the base currently holds about 8,500 evacuees, creating a sense of community in a sanctuary far from their native land. An environmental impact statement previously had estimated up to 9,500 people could live at the camp, which is being called Liberty Village.
Menendez also praised the U.S. military’s “extraordinary feat” in creating that haven, which includes a massive tent city and extensive services, in just a few weeks’ time.
“They’ve done it with dignity in a real introduction to what America is about,” the senator observed.
Menendez said he was struck during his tour by “the sense of gratitude among the Afghans, little kids coming up fist-bumping with you, families putting their hand over their heart. “
“I do think that of the sad chapter that we’ve had in our history in Afghanistan, this is probably one of the highlights,” he said.
Booker noted the camp is part of the country’s historic role as “a refuge for individuals fleeing war, persecution, and oppression. “
Menendez said living quarters at Liberty Village, which include seven large tented structures with more on the way, allow the newcomers to preserve family units and a sense of community.
Residents also have selected “elders” to serve “sort of like municipal councils &mldr to work directly with the camp’s leadership,” the senator added.
He said the system sends a message that “We’re here to help you, but it’s also about you being part of preparing yourself for the future. “
As part of that effort, the senator noted, all of the refugees are being vaccinated against COVID-19.
A vetting process that began before the Afghans came to this country will continue until the refugees leave the base for reunification with family members or for resettlement.
“They’re going through an extensive process,” said Menendez, who noted the involvement of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
But he also said ongoing checks have found no reason for concern over the camp’s residents, many of them Afghans who supported U.S. forces during the 20-year war and their families.
One Afghan, a small boy, indicated his future plans during an encounter with a soldier during the tour, Menendez said.
The boy noted the soldier was displaying the flag of Afghanistan on his ID card and the American flag on a shoulder patch.
“And the little boy says, ‘I’m an American,'” Menendez recounted. “Extraordinary. “
Jim Walsh covers public safety, economic development and other beats for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.