Story by Sherry C. Keneson-Hall; Photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
The world watched as more than 120,000 people were airlifted from Afghanistan in August 2021. Soldiers and diplomats worked tirelessly to fill planes and evacuate as many Americans, colleagues, and allies as possible. After the planes departed Kabul, many landed on military bases around the world—referred to as lily pads—before departing again for the United States. Most of those planes then landed at Dulles International Airport, and from the early morning hours of Aug. 22 until the late hours of Sept. 11, a total of 45,521 Afghans passed through the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Va.
The plan was simple: once evacuees cleared Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and tested negative for COVID-19, those receiving humanitarian parole would be sent to safe havens on eight military bases to complete their processing. The reality was much more complicated. As the first plane arrived, buses of exhausted families initially were received at an empty office building called Dulles West, which had been transformed into a short-term shelter with 300 green cots and food supplied by the Red Cross. As additional Afghans arrived, the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) in Annandale was used as a temporary shelter while the Afghans waited for buses or flights to their onward safe havens.
From left: Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials administer nasal swab Covid-19 tests to arriving Afghans at Dulles international Airport (IAD), Aug. 27. A Department of State employee (left) assists Afghans onto a transport shuttle outside IAD, Aug. 27. A volunteer from HHS administers a COVID-19 vaccine to an arriving evacuee at the Dulles Expo Center, Aug. 28.
With more inbound flights scheduled to arrive in hours, operations were moved from Dulles West and NOVA to the Dulles Expo Center. There, staff from the Department of State, USAID, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) worked with a variety of volunteers from the Red Cross, Save the Children, the Peace Corps, and Hussein for Humanity, and with contractors to create an emergency reception center for all arrivals for the next three weeks.
“For twenty-one days a mash-up of the very best public servants worked 24/7 to welcome more than 45,500 Afghans in safety and dignity. Together we created ‘Dulles Island,’ one part of this very complex and historic airlift story,” said Deputy Executive Secretary Tressa Finerty who served as the executive director of operations at the Dulles Expo site.
Video edited by GPA Video Office
One of those public servants answering the call was Waseem Azizi, a project manager for the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations’ Program Development, Coordination, and Support office. Azizi came to America at age four as an Afghan refugee after his family fled the Soviet Invasion in 1979.
“It is hard for me to put into words the connection I feel to these people. With the diaspora, I feel there is a sense of duty, obligation, guilt, and I don’t know what else, because we escaped during war time, and we were fortunate enough to do so.”
Azizi was a bit apprehensive about the task at hand. “I had a conversation with my father about it and he said ‘son if you think about the Afghans who have been refugees in America, we have been very successful. Yes, it is challenging but if you work for it there is opportunity and Afghans are very entrepreneurial.’ My father said that the Afghans would see me with my State Department badge, and they will see that is what their kids can do. It was a very positive thing to hear and so I was no longer scared.”
The evacuees’ privacy was a staff priority, which meant that during the operations, very little of what happened at the Dulles Expo or the additional processing site in Philadelphia was made public to those outside. Azizi said his wife would ask him about claims she saw being reported on social media.
“I saw firsthand what we did. We went through several weeks of processing these families and walking them into America with dignity,” Azizi said. “I would tell my wife that these people on social media don’t know what is going on. People are being welcomed in as meaningful and as good a way as they could be, given the scale of this effort.”
Several volunteers credited interagency cooperation for the success of setting up a mission of this size in a short span of time. Tracey Swan, a foreign affairs officer for the Office of Foreign Assistance, served more than two years in Afghanistan before joining the 24/7 Dulles Operations Center, which was set up to help leadership manage the flow of information. Swan said the operation demonstrated how well the foreign affairs community, USAID, DOS, and DOD, can come together to unite under one mission when the stakes are at their highest.
“I got to see how the interagency cooperation played out in real time and it was fascinating,” said Swan. “We proved we could come together to manage an unprecedented crisis in a short time. We also lived up to some of the commitments the president made to those in Afghanistan to get out our partners, friends, and colleagues and to help get them to safety.”
Jamie Cohn, office management specialist and trip coordinator in the Executive Secretariat’s Executive Office helped lead the manifesting unit at the Dulles Expo. She likened the development and deployment of complex logistical processes amid an ongoing humanitarian airlift effort to trying to build a plane in the middle of a flight.
“Professionally this was the most challenging thing I will probably ever do and personally probably the same,” she added.
Ultimately, this complex and multi-faceted mission succeeded because the numerous disparate agencies involved in the operation shared a common vision and cooperated to realize it.
“We were the U.S government helping the Afghans. We were not DOD, not DHS, not USAID, not State. It was a whole-of-government approach. I never saw any power struggles over who was in charge or who needed to answer to whom. We had each other’s backs, and the decision making was often done on the spot. We really cut the red tape to get things done,” said Cohn.
The willingness of responding agencies to set aside bureaucratic squabbling and instead focus on the shared objective of assisting at-risk Afghans is a major reason the operations at the Dulles Expo were able to help so many people.
From left: Ambassador Don Yamamoto (third from left) participates in a morning meeting with representatives of other federal and state response agencies at Dulles International Airport, Aug. 27. U.S. Army Soldiers play soccer with two boys at the Dulles Expo Center reception area, Sept. 1.
“Seeing how people dove in and rolled up their sleeves demonstrated to me the best of what the American government can do when we dive right in and solve problems,” said Ambassador Laura Dogu, the director of the Afghanistan CONUS Task Force. “From a Foreign Affairs perspective, that is what we do, but sometimes we don’t always get a chance to do it that obviously.”
Many volunteers answered the Department’s calls for support, serving in various roles in the Dulles Expo operation. Ambassador Don Yamamoto was one of several volunteers who were attending the Foreign Service Institute retirement course when the call went out.
“If POTUS and the secretary of state articulate this as our top priority, then this is our total mission focus—to get the job done. Further, for those of us who served in Afghanistan, it was a personal mission of supporting and helping those Afghans who sacrificed so much to support the U.S. mission and operations in Afghanistan,” he said.
Yamamoto was the State Department lead at the Dulles International Airport, liaising with CBP, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and others. He previously served as one of the last principal officers in Mazar al Shariff, as well as in Kabul and at Bagram, where he was embedded with the Army’s Third Infantry Division. The ambassador felt a personal connection as his son, a Major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, also served in Afghanistan and his father was a Japanese immigrant after World War II, during which his mother’s family members were in Japanese internment camps in California and elsewhere, and whose uncles served in the 442nd regiment in the second world war. He highlighted this experience as an integral reason why his parents raised him with the commitment to make the United States a receptive place for all people.
At the airport, while CBP processed arriving Afghans, Yamamoto sought to improve their comfort. The State and USAID teams worked with all agencies to resolve bottlenecks and to move people quickly over to the Dulles Expo Center. The Red Cross provided cots, water, and snacks, and celebrity chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen stayed for three weeks providing thousands of hot meals per day to evacuees.
Yamamoto said he walked among the waiting evacuees at the airport and talked to them to gauge how people were feeling.
“For some, chef Tim Kilcoyne of the World Central Kitchen provided the first hot meal they had in days or longer. You could see that as they would sit and eat, they would start to relax, and the tensions drained away.”
From left: Interagency volunteers greet Afghans as they arrive at the Dulles Expo Center by bus, Sept. 3. Some Afghans arrived with only the clothes on their backs due to being separated from their luggage during their arduous journeys. Here, men, women, and children wait in line to receive donated clothing and toiletry items, Sept. 3.
After evacuees exited the airport, they were bused to the Dulles Expo to await their onward transportation. When each new bus arrived, volunteers at the Expo applauded as the evacuees entered the building. There, they were greeted by American flags, a Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination center, and a row of tables where volunteers were paired with interpreters, some from the Office of Language Services and some hired by a local contractor. Here the evacuees were processed through the intake unit.
Evacuee information was captured, and each family was assigned a number, which would help ensure they were grouped together when they were ready for departure. They also received unique wristbands, which indicated their onward destination.
Many Afghans had special needs that required immediate attention upon arrival. David Tully, an intelligence research specialist with the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, served as a lead in the special cases unit.
“We were in a lot of ways the unspecialized specialists. We had to work with everyone else at the Expo to figure out complex problems and while this could be very frustrating, the team was so dedicated that they didn’t let that frustration get in the way. We tried every avenue and looked around every corner to solve these cases and a lot of that paid off,” said Tully.
Special cases work required staff to serve as part private investigator, part social worker, and part medical dispatcher. Evacuees with urgent medical needs were sent to the medical unit. Many were looking for information about family members from whom they had been separated.
“Being assigned to special cases was a blessing for me,” said Tully. “At first, we worked mostly with separated families and unaccompanied minors, the unusual problems, but as we went on it became more complex. We had a team of excellent people who learned very quickly to solve problems on the fly. It was very gratifying, especially when you could solve a case within the span of a single shift, but it really required working with all colleagues at the Expo.”
The desire to help arriving Afghans was a motivation expressed by many volunteers, including Rebecca White, a senior policy advisor with the Civilian-Military Cooperation Office in the Bureau of Conflict, Prevention, and Stabilization at USAID. White was one of the very first volunteers to join the operation, first serving at the Dulles West Office building on Aug. 21.
“Everyone who showed up knew that we had to help these people. There was an intense feeling of camaraderie. I can’t begin to tell people how this felt,” she said. “I don’t know if I believe in karma or anything, but all the right people from the right agencies were all there for the right reasons. We had a moral and ethical duty to do something. We had a duty to act, and we did.”
The duty to act was noticed by even the newest employees. Katherine von Ofenheim, who served as a presidential management fellow the last nine months, started A-100 the day after she wrapped up operations at the Dulles Expo.
“Joining the operation felt a bit like a confirmation that I’d made the right career choice in joining the Foreign Service. It was exactly the type of work that made me want to get into this career to begin with,” said von Ofenheim. “It was a chance to be involved in work that mattered and could measurably improve lives, to problem solve and think on my feet, and to be a part of making a much, much larger operation successful. I found it extremely compelling to be on the front lines and watch the speed and scale at which the operation unfolded.”
In addition to the team dynamic, von Ofenheim credits the small successes, like reuniting families, with helping her and other volunteers to get through the very long days.
A dedication to helping people in need is what drove Solange Garvey, a Civil Service employee with the Post Management Office in the Bureau of African Affairs Executive Office, to volunteer.
“Every day I try to wake up and ask, ‘How can I help an individual?’ I want to be a better person by helping others,” she said. “My work at the Expo gave me an opportunity to problem solve and to engage with our guests. The operation was built out smoothly and safely. While there were hurdles thrown at us, the amazing leadership we had gave us the opportunity to problem solve, to host, to manage, and to execute the mission.”
One major hurdle was lost luggage. As Afghans began arriving, their lack of baggage was conspicuous. At the lily pads many Afghans were separated from their bags, which often arrived on different flights. Garvey was first assigned to help pair people with their bags, a task for which she was linguistically ill-prepared at a time when there were not yet enough onsite translators. However, help came from unexpected sources.
“People had questions and I didn’t have the language to answer them,” she said.
“Young men who had served with our military as translators stepped up and would ask how they could help me. They were able to explain to their Afghan brothers and sisters what I knew about the luggage. They communicated [to the Afghans] difficult messages with grace and respect. This made the message go over better.”
Approximately 30,000 pieces of luggage remain unaccounted for, and an outside contractor has taken over the reunification process. Before Afghan evacuees departed the Dulles Expo Center, they went through one final step where they would be added to a manifest list for a flight or bus to one of eight safe haven military bases in the United States. Like all aspects of the operation, the manifest unit worked around the clock. Within days of standing up the center the manifesting team created a “mini airport” with four gates, each with its own waiting area and TSA line, processing as many as 600 evacuees at a time.
The challenge of setting up and running this massive operation in such a short time, combined with the stress of assisting so many desperate people every day, took an emotional toll on volunteers.
From left: Deputy Executive Secretary Tressa Finerty (second from left), who served as the executive director of operations at the Dulles Expo Center, provides an operations overview to Counselor of the Department Derek Chollet (center), Sept. 1. A boy plays catch with his father outside the Dulles Expo Center, Sept. 3. A volunteer helps a child affix her artwork to a wall in the reception area at the Dulles Expo Center, Sept. 3.
“I was sitting by myself in gate four and it was the only time I broke down … One of the staff members came over and reminded me to take the space needed to process what was happening around us,” said Cohn. “Everyone had an understanding that we were all going through every human emotion imaginable, and we needed to look out for each other. This was really hard and at times I would feel like I didn’t know if I could keep on doing it, but you kept going because there were people relying on us to move them onward.”
White also expressed a similar sentiment. Like many other volunteers she continues to process the events she witnessed, and finds herself often reflecting upon the time she spent at Dulles Expo Center.
From left: A sign in the Dulles Expo Center manifesting area displays departure times for passenger buses. A family transports their belongings to a waiting bus at the expo center. The final group of Afghan evacuees boards a bus bound for Upshur Village at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Sept. 11.
“The Expo was a hotel, a hospital, a childcare center, an emergency immigration center, a restaurant, and everything was happening in one place. It is hard to describe it all. The first seven to 10 days were really the hardest before we finally hit our rhythm,” said White. “In the early days it felt like I was making giant decisions about people’s lives, but later it was more operational than tactical.”
Garvey, who was an immigrant herself, said she looks forward to hearing the stories years from now after the evacuees have settled into their new lives. “I met two young ladies who had been friends for about 15 years. They said they didn’t know anyone in the United States, but they found their way onto a flight in Kabul and then made it here to Dulles. They were so excited that they had this opportunity. Just to see these two young ladies, bright-eyed and ready to start a new life, motivated me and helped me see that I did the right thing here.”
Very little of what happened for those three weeks at the Dulles Expo center remains physically, but all those who passed through there, either as one of the thousands of employees or volunteers, or as one of the many Afghan evacuees, will carry memories of that brief time with them. Now the work continues at the eight safe havens.
“Team Dulles took a bow and exited stage left, but the overall Operation Allies Welcome has really just begun. The ultimate success of the historic operation will not be any metric we capture in our daily updates to leadership, but rather our measure of success, as a government and a society, will be a soft landing for our Afghan colleagues, with full integration into the towns and cities they will eventually call home,” said Finerty.
Ambassador Dogu witnessed volunteers come together to accomplish their mission. She hopes that there is some way to capture that spirit and bring it into the Department’s daily work.
“You had to be there to experience it. How can we create that environment and that empowerment in normal day-to-day work so that people feel they can problem solve and take risks in real time?” she said. “The whole Afghanistan situation was tough for everyone working in the foreign affairs community, but what inspired me was watching people be inspired by the ability to serve those who served us.”
Sherry C. Keneson-Hall is the Fulbright branch chief for Europe/Eurasia in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and served for three weeks in support of Operation Allies Welcome at the Dulles Expo Center. Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.