'Something very profound happened': Last Afghan refugees leave Camp Atterbury this week

·4 min read

For four months, Massoud Ahmad Vighagh slept in a single-story barracks at an Indiana military base, surrounded by strangers, desperately awaiting answers about his future.

After fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan, he arrived at Camp Atterbury, as one of thousands of Afghan evacuees temporarily housed at the military base.

“Everything is OK now,” Vighagh, 32, told IndyStar on Sunday, just one day after leaving the base and settling into his new Indianapolis home.

He’s one of the last people to depart Camp Atterbury since the base began receiving Afghan refugees in September, through the Department of Homeland Security-led mission “Operation Allies Welcome.”

The Indiana base is poised to complete its mission after helping with the resettlement of about 7,200 people.

About 14 Afghan guests remain and will be resettled this week, Aaron Batt, federal coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, said in an update Monday. Evacuees were resettled across the country, Batt said, with Indiana among one of the top 10 states they now call home — a point of pride for state officials like Gov. Eric Holcomb.

“Something very profound happened here on Hoosier soil,” Holcomb said, praising the efforts of military personnel, volunteers and others at Camp Atterbury. “This truly was one of Indiana's finest hours.”

Across the country, OAW has helped welcome nearly 85,000 people, and the majority of them been resettled into communities. About 700 of them will call Indiana home, as they settling in cities including Indianapolis, Bloomington and Muncie.

Inside Operation Allies Welcome: IndyStar visits Indiana military base housing thousands of Afghan evacuees

'The world is too small': An Afghan translator and U.S. soldier reunited at Camp Atterbury

The people at Camp Atterbury, which normally serves as an Indiana National Guard training site, will be back to business as usual — but the experience has changed them, too.

The Johnson County base's museum now has a new exhibit, incorporating items from the mission, including Red Cross blankets and drawings made by Afghan children. Major. General R. Dale Lyles, the Indiana National Guard’s Adjutant General, recalled his own time serving in Afghanistan during the press conference Monday.

“There was a big part of me that was left in that country. We lost four of our soldiers, Indiana Hoosiers, while I was over there for my company,” Lyles said. “And this goes a long ways with healing some of those wounds, as well as resettling over 7,000 Afghans that wanted to come to this country and start anew.”

It's mission accomplished on the base, but resettlement agencies and other organizations are still supporting people to help them get assimilated, go to school and find jobs.

“We are going to continue to walk side by side with our new residents here in the state of Indiana,” Holcomb said.

Story continues below the gallery.

Leaving Camp Atterbury

Vighagh spent his first day in Indianapolis exploring downtown with his friend, sister and brother-in-law. They checked out a library, gym and mosque, envisioning what their new lives would look like. He discovered Monument Circle and Starbucks. It was “great and fantastic,” he said.

But that night, he couldn’t sleep.

The strangers at Camp Atterbury had turned into crucial lifelines, Vighagh says. They found camaraderie and shared grief over late-night talks and card games.

“We came together and we were like ... family,” Vighagh, 32, said.

He worked for non-governmental organizations and the Afghan government for years, which put a target on his back when the Taliban took over Kabul, he says. They knew his name and where he lived. His life was in danger, Vighagh said. He escaped, but he had to leave behind the people most precious to him.

His wife and 5-year-old daughter are still in Kabul, and he fears for their safety.

“My family is my everything,” Vighagh said. “I have to do something for them.”

At Camp Atterbury, though he found safety, the frustration felt almost endless as he waited to hear about his fate. While some people left the camp after a few weeks, he stayed from mid-September to late January and could not get any clear answers on which city he would be assigned, he says.

“Everything was like a dark place,” Vighagh said. “That you are living in a dark place, but you don't know where the light switch is, where’s the door, where’s the other tools that you need to go out of here. Just waiting. Just waiting.”

Now that he is out of the camp, his list of responsibilities is lengthy: find a job, take higher education courses, improve his English, bring his family to the U.S.

But he’s eager and unafraid to take it all on.

“I will be faced with problems, but I have no tension,” Vighagh said, thankful to start a new chapter and for the people at Camp Atterbury.

“They were there for us, they worked for us 24 hours … Just I can say thank you so much.”

Contact Rashika Jaipuriar at rjaipuriar@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter @rashikajpr.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Camp Atterbury nears end of mission as home to Afghan refugees