FRESNO, Calif. – Four Airmen from the California Air National Guard's 144th Fighter Wing recently returned from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, where they assisted evacuated Afghan refugees in Operation Allies Welcome.
OAW is a coordinated operation by federal government agencies to provide safe, temporary housing and resettlement for Afghan refugees. OAW also provides transportation, medical screening and general support for the evacuees.
Tech. Sgt. Francisco Raza, Senior Airman Valerie Malcom, Airman 1st Class Joshua Lloyd, and Airman 1st Class Cody Schlenzig were assigned to the 335th Air Expeditionary Group as a part of Task Force Liberty.
Service members from all branches and all over the country were called to support OAW.
“I got the call Sept. 10,” Lloyd said. “I had a day and a half to get everything in order and then I left the morning of the 12th.”
Once Lloyd and the three Airmen arrived in New Jersey, they were assigned to their roles. Reza, a 144th Security Forces Squadron combat arms manager, worked in a law enforcement capacity.
“I was the area supervisor for one of three villages,” Reza said. “As the area supervisor, I would respond to any call for service, which included medical emergencies.”
Malcom, a 144th Force Support Squadron personnel specialist, was part of a team that provided logistical support for the guests and military personnel.
The term “guests” is used on base for the Afghan evacuees living there to convey a sense of acceptance and hospitality.
Lloyd, a 144th Maintenance Squadron jet engine mechanic, and Schlenzig, a 144th Logistics Readiness Squadron ground vehicle transportation specialist, worked in supply.
“We would accept pallets filled with supplies, sort them so they could be set out for the guests to grab items,” Lloyd said. “There were also tables and coat racks full of things for all different ages to have.”
During long days and time spent performing duties, there were opportunities for the Airmen to interact with the guests, especially the children.
“We made it a point to go out and play with the kids,” Malcom said. “We would go out there and make connections. We would go out and play soccer or volleyball. That was a motivating factor for me, to go out there and talk with them.”
Participating in OAW has been a memorable and life-changing experience for the Airmen. They conveyed how rewarding their experiences were and how they wished they could do more for the guests.
“There was one girl who would specifically bring herself and her siblings by every night to see me toward the end of my time there,” Malcom said. “She couldn’t believe it when I told her I’m an only child. She told me, ‘OK, I’m your sister, you’re my sister.’ That was really special. Saying goodbye to her was hard.”
“[If I were to do it over again,] I would want to bring more joy to the kids,” Schlenzig said. “I would make more communication efforts with the adults and learn their stories.”
Connecting with the guests on a deeper level left the Airmen feeling humbled and grateful.
“Getting to know the personal lives of some of the interpreters who were with us was motivating,” Reza said. “Their dreams are not that different than ours, yet their circumstances were insane.”
“I’m grateful for the things that I have and the opportunities that I was given,” Lloyd said. “I definitely look at my workplace differently, especially now that I’ve settled into home. [Now, I see my colleagues as people who] are here because they are working to feed their family, have a home, and participate in the American dream.”
Reza, Malcom, Lloyd and Schlenzig were a part of the many service members who volunteered for OAW and to help Afghan evacuees adjust to their new lives in America.
According to The Associated Press, OAW has resettled about 37,000 Afghan evacuees as of December. Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is one of eight installations assisting in OAW and currently houses the largest number of Afghan evacuees.
“It was an honor to be there and to help them transition,” Schlenzig said.