Yesterday I slept in my car. Cold. Exhausted. Just my son’s old Marine woobie to keep me warm. Windows closed firm, the seat folded down so I could almost stretch my legs out completely. The hard seat back pinched my already sore shoulder and my one knee just couldn’t get warm, despite the woobie. The rain outside, and the sun rising, caught my attention but the warm hood of my sweatshirt helped me shut out both. My dear friend sleeping near me in the car comforted me, I was not alone.
Less than half a click away thousands of Afghani evacuees slept in even less hospitable accommodations. The US military, the American Red Cross and our local partners have done a phenomenal job creating shelter, medical care, bathroom facilities, mess tents and more to support the massive evacuation operation out of Afghanistan. The initial two hangars cleared out on the first day, now expanded to an additional 350 tents on the hard tarmac of the airfield. Every evacuee has food, shelter & a blanket. The lucky ones have a cot.
The organization to bring about this safe haven is unfathomable. The logistics implemented in such a short time is nothing less than a miracle. The immense scope of Operations Allies Refuge is incredible from a distance. Up close, in person, it’s overwhelming.
The call for blankets, clothes, towels, diapers went out like a tsunami over our community here in Germany. En masse we responded. Bags were packed, stores were bought out, volunteers poured out of the woodwork to sort donations by age & gender. American Red Cross volunteers, myself included, signed up for shifts and filled in where needed.
What was needed were midnight volunteers. People willing to be up at zero:dark:thirty and welcome the newest evacuees to their “pods”. Their home away from home. We manned stations to hand out towels, blankets, hygiene packets filled with toothbrushes, combs, toothpaste, shampoo, washcloths and menstrual pads. One of us was in charge of blankets, one per evacuee. One blanket to fight of the 9°C (48°F) cold. We had a very limited supply of hats, gloves, socks & shoes.
Socks & shoes for the barefoot kids. Kids with nothing on their feet. Kids with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Babies. Infants. Newborns. This was my lane. My station. I handed shy, exhausted, yet extremely polite, mothers a bottle. Some formula. A little baggie with no more than 10 diapers & wipes for the babe in their arms. Their gratitude overwhelmed me. My service to them was so incredibly small, the gratitude felt so undeserved.
My new friend, to my left, handed out one package of crackers to each person and one piece of fruit. An apple or a banana. A couple of the boys (no more than nine years old) knew the word for “apple” and proudly asked for “apple”, while looking longingly at the bananas right next to the apples. My co-volunteer, against strict instructions from our self-appointed shift leader, snuck in a banana for them too & their faces just lit up. Huge smiles cracked their tired little faces just for getting both a banana and an apple. My heart broke.
To my right the other volunteers eagle-eye spotted bare-footed children and babies. Socks & hats were given often and our sparse stock quickly whittled down to nothing. My expert eye gauged baby ages & sizes and I ran to grab the right size baby hats and diapers. All I needed were newborn, size 1 or size 2. The babies were so tiny. Their poor little heads so cold. Our early crisp Fall weather in Germany a shock after the 80-90°F weather in Kabul.
I worked tirelessly for six hours. My old, out-of-shape body screaming after just two. After 2 a.m. someone announced the time every 15 minutes, all of us shocked at how slow time goes when you are working hard, watching the Eastern sky for sunrise. And yet, despite desperately needing a break, I couldn’t do enough.
I had expected a rough, angry people. I had expected young men of fighting age, instead I welcomed families. I welcomed kind, gentle people. Incredibly grateful people. People who had helped our soldiers. The people I saw and served are our allies. People who have given up everything, literally everything, to stand by America. To help their country fight a frightfully oppressive regime.
I slept in that cold hard car, sore from one entire nights work. My heart overflowing with compassion for the people I had briefly met. My thoughts with the one family the same size as mine. Mom, dad, six kids. Albeit 4 sons & 2 daughters.
The two middle boys quietly squabbling over the one banana, tightly clutching their individual apples in one hand each. Their eyes meeting mine, scared at first when I beckoned their attention, then lighting up in big matching grins as I gave them a 2nd banana while another volunteer handed them a 3rd & 4th for their younger sisters. I felt like Santa Claus. I felt their joy as they thanked me. For bananas.
After they left, despite the bright spotlight shining directly in my eyes, I felt a wave of darkness. What did the future hold for them? What past had they just escaped? How would they pass the night on the cold hard pavement with just a thin blanket? Suddenly the eldest son, the same height & age as my son Dane, stood before me again. His pleading eyes met mine. I speak no Pashto, my quickly learned “qabea” or hat in Arabic, useless. But he mimed pulling a hat over his head. I didn’t need to know the word to understand exactly what he wanted.
I grabbed him a hat, and suddenly Dad & the two younger banana-loving brothers, were in front of me too. All mime’ing hat with their hands, their eyes pleading & happy at the same time. Looking expectantly at me. I quickly grabbed a small pile of hats and handed them out. Smiles all around, including a huge one on my own face under my mask. My painful, thick, heavy, extra-duty mask. And then more excited gesturing.
They asked for hats for their sisters. I used the sign for long-hair, once upon a time I learned ASL to work with deaf children, and they enthusiastically nodded yes and held their hands to show the height of their sisters. I grabbed two more, pink this time, warm hats and they again smiled big smiles and thanked me.
I had two more families I served after that. Then the morning shift of volunteers came to take our place, as another bus filled with evacuees pulled up. The work 24/7. The volunteers 24/7. I took off my American Red Cross vest. I have never been as proud and honored to be a part of something. I played an infinitesimally small part in one of the largest, if not *the* largest, humanitarian evacuations in history.
I cannot take or post pictures, however each of the following sites has approved photo’s for you to see the enormous effort underway. You can also find ways to help, support or donate via these
This is such a sad story, at the same time a wonderful story. To read how you and other volunteers have given time to help these very need people who are grateful for even the smallest of items given is humbling. I pray that you will all be blessed for the help you give and that sleeping in your car does not give you too many problems.
Oh Toiny, bless you for your effort, for your aloha to these humans. I’m in tears just reading this. Thank you for sharing this front line personal volunteer experience. In spite of the constant barrage of media, we are really so isolated from the reality, the painful emotions that accompany “pulling out.” I hope you have the strength to give a little more. I know you will dig deep and find it. Again, bless you and thank you so much.
Thank you so much for your service and for this up close and personal account of what is going on. Thank you also for the links that you included.