Afghan Refugees Holed Up In Air Base In Germany Wait To Fly To U.S. : NPR

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Afghan evacuees wait in a fenced-in enclosure for the next flight to the USA in a hangar at Ramstein Air Base, a large US base in Germany. More than 25,000 Afghans have traveled through Ramstein to get to the US Rob Schmitz / NPR Hide caption

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Afghan evacuees wait in a fenced-in enclosure for the next flight to the USA in a hangar at Ramstein Air Base, a large US base in Germany. More than 25,000 Afghans traveled to the USA via Ramstein

Rob Schmitz / NPR

RAMSTEIN, Germany – Hangar 5 at this huge U.S. air force base can comfortably accommodate some of the largest aircraft in the world. It wasn’t meant to house people. But in the past two weeks, when the United States conducts the largest airlift in its history, the base has hosted more than 25,000 Afghans waiting to be brought to America.

The nine-story ceiling of Hangar 5 rises above a row of rectangular enclosures made of 2-meter-high wire fences that separate groups of Afghans in brightly colored robes and tunics.

In one corner of one of these enclosures, a woman in a black hijab is cradling her newborn baby, which is wrapped in a linen cloth on the cold floor of the hangar. The infant’s name is Mustafa and his short life has been hectic.

Mustafa was born 15 days ago in a village outside of Kabul. The next day, his family took him to the hectic gates of Kabul airport, where they slept outside with many others for four days, desperately fleeing the Taliban.

When he was 5 days old, little Mustafa was driven through the gates, put on a plane and landed at Ramstein Air Base. Now he is waiting for a flight that will take him to his new home in the USA in a few hours.

A 15-day-old baby waits with his mother and siblings at Ramstein Air Base for a flight to the United States. The family fled Afghanistan because the baby’s father worked for the Afghan army before the Taliban came to power. Rob Schmitz / NPR hide caption

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Rob Schmitz / NPR

“I plan to build a life for my son and his siblings in America,” says Mustafa’s mother Worahmeena, who only gives her first name out of fear of reprisals by the Taliban on the family who are still at home. “My husband worked in the Afghan army and we were too much in danger to stay in Afghanistan.”

Thousands of other Afghans have come to Ramstein for similar reasons. Here they prepare for departures to Virginias Dulles or Philadelphia International Airport.

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Your first stop after your arrival is a row of medical examination tents. Lt. Col. Simon Alexander Ritchie, a Minneapolis officer who heads a medical unit at the base, is one of the first U.S. soldiers they meet.

He says there were so many evacuees from Kabul that his team ran out of space a few days ago.

Lt. Col. Simon Alexander Ritchie, who heads a medical unit at the air base, is one of the first U.S. soldiers to meet the Afghans after arriving at Ramstein Air Base in preparation for the flight to the U.S. Rob Schmitz / NPR Hide caption

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Rob Schmitz / NPR

“So we built the festival tent on the side, which can hold around 1,200 people,” says Ritchie. “We ran out of space there. We have built another room on the other side of the building that can hold around 2,000 people. There the place was out. We built a fifth room that can hold about another 2,000. So at one point here, we had about 7,000 travelers waiting for us. “

A baby born to a mother who is fleeing Afghanistan is named after the evacuation flight

He says six babies were born among the thousands who got through here – one of them on the plane. The newborn girl’s parents named it “Reach” after the callsign of the C-17 plane that flew them out of Kabul.

Ritchie says he’s never been part of anything this big. “I’ve been with the Air Force for a while and I’ve hopefully done some good things, but nothing of this magnitude or magnitude,” he says.

Several students from a California public school are still trapped in Afghanistan

Back in the departure hangar, a bus with Afghan families drives to a waiting Delta Air Lines plane that will take them to Dulles Airport. Smiling children hang out of the bus windows and wave goodbye to those waiting.

“If you’ve seen the bus that was trying to load the plane, you’ll see a smile.”

Says Col. Adrienne Williams, who helps manage the airlift. “It warms your heart … you see all the little children and young families and you know that they have a future ahead of them.”

Two children in a row of wire-fenced enclosures at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Rob Schmitz / NPR hide caption

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Rob Schmitz / NPR

Among those waiting to leave is Jamila, a woman who uses her first name only for fear of reprisals by the Taliban against her family at home. She says Taliban guards tore up her family’s documents and shot bullets over their heads at Kabul airport, but they persisted and broke into a plane through the checkpoint.

“The Taliban beat up and arrested my husband and brother-in-law,” she says. “They both worked for the former government.” Jamila says she doesn’t know what happened to them and is worried sick.

When asked if she is afraid of moving to the United States, a place she has only heard of and operates in a language that neither she nor her children speak, she shakes her head.

“I fought hard to get here, I am interested and motivated to learn and allow my children to live safe and normal lives,” she says. “And if someone is motivated, he can do anything.”

Ali Reza Hussaini contributed to this report from Ramstein, Germany.