The Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly sees thousands of people come through its doors each year for events like the D.C. Flea and Antique Market, the Home and Remodeling Show and the Nation’s Gun Show. But now, the 130,000 square foot conference center is being used for a much different purpose as it hosts Afghan refugees who are fleeing their home nation after the U.S. military departed and the Taliban seized control.
Initially, Afghan refugees who were arriving at Dulles Airport were taken to the Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) Annandale campus as a layover location before connecting with family in the area or flying out to military bases such as Fort Lee, Va., Fort McCoy, Wis. and Fort Bliss, Texas, but now are being taken to the Dulles Expo Center instead of the college. The NVCC campus had set up 500 cots for refugees to sleep on during their brief stay, but the Expo Center has room to house more refugees than NVCC. The Department of Defense also authorized the use of Quantico Marine Corps Base as well as Fort Pickett in central Virginia to support about 5,000 and 10,000 refugees respectively.
Information about the ongoing affair of refugees being housed in the county is still unclear for leaders in Fairfax. “This is a State Department operation in Fairfax County, we only know what we are told by the State Department,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member, Pat Herrity. “We can house up to 1,100 refugees at any given time. We do not know if we will get more refugees. The previous group who stayed at NVCC left in a couple of days. Information has been hard for us to get.”
The Department of State reports that since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of 37,000 people from Afghanistan, and since the end of July has relocated 42,000 people. As of August 25. more than 8,600 refugees had arrived through Dulles, according to figures provided by Governor Ralph Northam’s office.
One anonymous refugee who worked as an interpreter and gained U.S. citizenship told NBC 4 of the prevalent fear he still has despite fleeing Afghanistan. “I can’t even sleep because I know it’s my family. I know what I’m going through. My mom is there, my family, my brothers, my nephews. My entire family is there, stuck.” Many Afghans are facing similar fears as families are split up due to limited flight access or not being able to obtain U.S. citizenship.
President Joe Biden announced that all Afghan evacuees are being screened in third countries; there are no flights coming directly to the U.S. from Afghanistan. The refugees undergo COVID and other safety protocols in other countries before flying to the U.S. The Dulles Expo Center is also adhering to CDC COVID guidelines to protect refugees and staff during their stay.
Many stories of pain and exhaustion are coming from the refugees who have made it to safety in Fairfax County, after waiting days at the Kabul airport. One refugee told the Washington Post, “It was very difficult for us. In five days, we did not eat or sleep. I had no shoes until today.” The State Department oversees moving the refugees along from the Dulles Expo Center to the military bases, and then plans will be made for the refugee’s resettlement in the U.S.
The State Department has information on their website about how citizens can help Afghans. “It is the millions of people in local communities across the United States who ensure the success of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by welcoming and helping integrate refugees from around the world,” the website says. “We encourage people who are interested in assisting resettled Afghan SIVs and refugees to reach out to their local refugee resettlement agency to donate, volunteer, or even form community sponsorship teams. There are many opportunities to be involved in welcoming SIVs and refugees and helping them to rebuild their lives in the U.S.”
The Dulles Expo Center is currently not accepting any donations, but other groups across the area are accepting donations to support Afghan refugees, such as Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, IRC and Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington.
For ways to help Afghan refugees visit the following websites