Concerns over medical care, anxious to leave: An Afghan journalist’s plight at Fort McCoy

Three refugees tell News 3 Now that health care concerns and a clearly-communicated timeline for leaving Fort McCoy are top issues they want officials to address
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(Left) Nabila in Afghanistan, photo provided to WISC-TV (Right) Entrance to Fort McCoy

FORT MCCOY, Wis. –An evening bugle call played in the background as Nabila, her mother, and an English-speaking friend talked with a reporter over the phone. They’d been at Fort McCoy for about two weeks, arriving in early September.

Nabila, 21, has no idea when she’ll be able to leave. Maybe six weeks, maybe two months, she says through her interpreter friend. Arriving as an at-risk journalist through humanitarian parole announced by the Biden Administration in August for refugees without Special Immigrant Visas, she’s worried about her career and a delayed new beginning already fraught with concern.

“If I will be outside, I can start my activity as a journalist…I can enroll in some language classes,” she explains through her friend.

“We don’t know the community, the society. For her, this is a new life, and she will start a new life, but she is concerning [sic] about that. What will we do, what will happen if we go into society?”

Nabila assured News 3 that she wanted to be identified, sending video clips and photos of her time as a reporter and law student in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s government takeover left her and her mother fleeing Kabul on an Aug. 21 military flight. We’re protecting her mother’s and her friend’s identities, both refugees themselves.

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Their message is one of gratitude for escape and gratefulness for care and shelter, after weeks of trauma and anxiety in leaving a country torn by 20 years of war. But they also have concerns.

Medical care: Their top concern

The longer they stay, the more the health of her mother becomes a key concern, Nabila said. All three refugees voiced issues with the medical treatment provided by Task Force McCoy and affiliated personnel.

Nabila’s mother was diagnosed in Afghanistan with a heart disease unspecified to News 3, as well as high blood pressure. She suffered a medical emergency, described by their interpreter as difficulties breathing and her “heart stopping”, while on their crowded evacuation flight from Kabul to Qatar. But when it came time to see a doctor at Fort McCoy, he told them she didn’t have a heart issue at all.

“Her mother says that, ‘The doctor said to me that [there is] no problem with your heart,” their English-speaking friend said, translating for Nabila’s mother. “‘Your big problem is that you have stress. You are concerning [sic] about everything; that is why you are facing such problems.”

Their concerns, they felt, were dismissed. News 3 reviewed the paperwork from the visit with the doctor, provided later by the family. She was diagnosed with atypical chest pain and prescribed ibuprofen and Tylenol.

In response to questions about the medical concerns, a Task Force McCoy spokesperson didn’t specifically say whether medical staff had access to past medical records. All refugees undergo medical screening, the spokesperson said, and linguistic services are provided for all medical appointments both on the base or at a local health care facility if a guest needs acute care.

There are 300* clinical and administrative staff serving the Afghan refugees on the base, which was expanded to temporarily house 13,000 refugees. When asked how they would respond to Nabila’s mothers concerns about how her condition was treated differently in Afghanistan versus the U.S., the spokesperson said their health care was a top priority.

“We are prioritizing acute and emergent care along with public health to minimize the risk and spread of communicable disease,” an emailed statement from Task Force McCoy said. “We treat each case with the diagnosis and treatment regime that is determined to be the best course of action for each individual patient.”

Nabila’s English-speaking friend, who was granted anonymity for security reasons, said that as recently as a few days ago, other refugees have told him they have to wait two days for prescriptions. He brought the issue up at a recent meeting with Ft. McCoy officials, he said.

“[Healthcare] is the big concern of everyone,” he said. “The capacity is low.”

Officials told him they were working on it, he said, but didn’t provide any specifics. Forums for feedback about medical and other issues, as well as less formal conversations, are continually happening between refugees and officials at Fort McCoy, a spokesperson said. In respect to delays with prescriptions, basic medicines are kept on site, but other prescriptions are sent out to community pharmacies and brought back to base. A spokesperson didn’t specify how long the second process might take, however.

“We seek constant feedback from our Afghan guests on how the interagency team at Fort McCoy can improve their temporary stay.”

A handful of health care organizations are helping treat Afghan refugees, including Gundersen, Mayo Clinic, and the Red Cross. According to her medical documents, Nabila’s mother was seen by a Gundersen doctor. Ultimately, Nabila said she’s constantly worried about her mother’s frail health.

“She is old, and she is sick,” she said. “If something happens to her, the capacity of health care is so low here.”

Food, clothing, activities

Nabila and her mother have just two dresses each–the ones they wore leaving Afghanistan, and one they received later on a third-country base before arriving in the U.S.., Nabila said in text messages with News 3.

On Thursday, officials with the Department of Homeland Security, the Salvation Army, and Team Rubicon announced the launch of another clothing donation drive, urging people to donate much-needed winter clothes for refugees. Shoes and coats were in short supply, they said.

“As many of them fled with only the clothes on their back and very few belongings, there is an immediate need for winter clothing and shoes,” Angie Salazar, federal coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome. “We are asking Wisconsinites to help.”

Food has been “good enough” for them, Nabila said. Supply chain and clothing issues, reported earlier this week by the Wisconsin State Journal, are in the process of being resolved, officials have told the public. A congressional delegation has now requested an investigation into possible mistreatment of refugees.

Nabila spends her time on base reading books she brought from Afghanistan, or–when she can–talking to friends back home. She knows almost no one on the base, she said. Mostly, she’s anxious to leave.

Timeline for leaving

None of the refugees speaking to News 3 have gotten much information about when they’ll be able to leave. It was the top question they wanted asked of officials.

“Maybe one month? Three, four weeks?” the interpreter asked. “I have the same question.”

“How [much] time will we stay here?” Nabila asked. None of them seem to know.

A spokesperson for Task Force McCoy said they communicate with refugees about the length of their stay in a variety of ways, including community message boards, regular town halls, and neighborhood conversations in English, Dari and Pashtu.

“It’s important to note that the application process is different for each person or family depending on where they are in the process, and that will impact how long they will be housed at the installation,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Fort McCoy is prepared to provide housing and support to these Afghan personnel as long as required.”

About 37,000 Afghan refugees will be resettled in 47 states over the coming weeks, with Wisconsin set to make homes for 399. CBS News reported that as of Wednesday morning, there were more than 53,000 refugees at eight military installations around the country, including Fort McCoy.  Another 12,000 are waiting at third-country bases, after a temporary halt on incoming flights was announced after six measles cases were discovered among refugees in the U.S.

Refugees undergo biometric and background vetting before arriving in the U.S., with Fort McCoy conducting additional vetting.

Many of the evacuees are under humanitarian parole, a legal process invoked in August by the Biden Administration that allows refugees to arrive in the U.S. without visas for humanitarian reasons. From there, those who do not have a Special Immigrant Visa application started have an unclear path to visas. After a year in the U.S., the Biden Administration wants Congress to create a legalization program that would allow them to apply for green cards for permanent stays. Currently, they could be faced with the backlogged asylum system.

For those who have worked for the U.S. government or who arrived as at-risk advocates, humanitarian workers, and journalists, the path to resettlement could begin soon under the new Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) Program.

“The majority of the Afghans who will be resettled in the United States have worked directly with the US on its mission in Afghanistan, including across military, diplomatic, and development efforts — or will be a family member of someone who did,” a senior DHS official said in a press briefing earlier this week. “Thousands more of this group worked as journalists, human rights activists, or humanitarian workers and had careers that put them at risk, which makes them eligible for P1 or P2 visas.”

A path forward

Nabila is anxious to leave the base and start a new life in the United States with her mother. She’s passionate about journalism, and hopes to do it here. It’s been her dream since a small child, she said.

It was hard for her to leave, but it would have been far harder to stay.

On August 31, Reporters Without Borders said fewer than 100 of 700 female journalists remained working in Afghanistan. Nabila, who produced long video reports for a Youtube outlet, said she had no choice but to leave Afghanistan under fear for her life, under a regime known to restrict women and abuse and harass the media. Al Jazeera reported that 153 local news outlets have ceased operations since the takeover on August 15.

Her brother remained behind in Afghanistan. Daily, she worries about him.

“I’m asking all the international organizations–human rights, United Nations, all of them–that they shouldn’t stay silent about Afghanistan,” she pleads. “They have to do something for Afghanistan. I am asking them, I am raising my voice to them, that they should help Afghanistan.”

*An incorrect number of 120 staff was first provided to News 3 Now; Task Force McCoy corrected that number to 300 after publishing.