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Multilingual AF members assist team in transitioning Afghanistan evacuees

Airman talking to Afghans

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Asim Khan, director of staff, U.S. Air Forces Central Air Warfare Center, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, helps transition Afghan evacuees from Abu Dhabi International Airport to the Emirati Humanitarian City during the evacuation of American citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan in August 2021. (Courtesy Photo provided by U.S. Air Force Maj. Artemis Winkley)

Airman talking to Afghan children

U.S. Air Force Maj. Kelly Myers, director of operations, 380th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, helps transition Afghan evacuees from Abu Dhabi International Airport to the Emirati Humanitarian City during the evacuation of American citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan in August 2021. (Courtesy Photo provided by U.S. Air Force Maj. Artemis Winkley)

Group photo of translators

A team of U.S. Air Force members served alongside U.S. Embassy personnel, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Department of State and UAE Immigration, Customs and Security officials in an effort to transition Afghan evacuees from Abu Dhabi International Airport to the Emirati Humanitarian City during the evacuation of American citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan in August 2021. (Courtesy Photo provided by U.S. Air Force Maj. Artemis Winkley)

AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --

When Abu Dhabi agreed to receive and host evacuees from Afghanistan in August, U.S. military service members were eager to support the mission in any way possible.

A team of Airmen from Al Dhafra Air Base had just the skills to be able to assist the U.S. Embassy personnel, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Department of State and UAE Immigration, Customs and Security officials with the daunting task at hand.

Led by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Asim Khan, director of staff for the U.S. Air Forces Central Air Warfare Center, ADAB, a team of Airmen who speak Farsi, Dari, and Urdu, worked 10 to 18 hour shifts, helping to translate bio data and personal information to facilitate a smooth transition for evacuees arriving at Abu Dhabi International Airport and transporting them to the Emirati Humanitarian City, where they would be lodged and hosted by the UAE.

“Based on experience, I recognized emergent requirements to address language gaps between the evacuees, UAE and U.S. officials,” Khan said. Fortunately, U.S. Air Force leadership fully supported sending anyone who could be of service speaking any of the regional languages, he said.

Upon joining the processing team at Abu Dhabi International Airport, with virtually no time to prepare, the interagency cooperation was a challenge.

“We actualized a logarithmic increase in operational tempo in a matter of hours,” said Khan, “and the stressors associated with processing over 5,000 evacuees indicated many areas for improvement after the arrival of each U.S. Air Force C-17.”

The main challenge was the uncertainty of the whole situation, said U.S. Air Force Capt. Micah Winkley, another member of the AFCENT AWC.

“There were many processes involved to receive the refugees, support their transition to the Emirates Humanitarian City, then facilitate their departures to the United States,” Winkley said. “Mistakes are always made along the way, but we learned to minimize them and keep a positive attitude.”

Despite the overwhelming task and unforeseen circumstances, the team was able to streamline the process and became more efficient after each arrival of passengers. 

“We’d do a quick ‘hot wash’ and discuss areas of improvement, and then iterated and got better and better after each flight,” Kahn said.

While it initially took four and a half hours to process 450 passengers, by the time the last aircraft was unloaded, the team had it down to roughly two and a half hours.

The joint, coordinated effort by the multiple U.S. and UAE agencies ensured a safe and pleasant experience for the evacuees during an extremely stressful time.

“The U.S. Embassy professionals consistently impressed us with their compassion, optimism, and boundless energy,” said Winkley. “It was a pleasure meeting so many of them and working together!”

The evacuees were understandably in need of compassion and assistance.

“We saw a lot of children without shoes, or with mismatched shoes that were too small or too big. It grieved us to see the conditions in which the children arrived,” Winkley said. “But the best part of this experience is seeing how tragedy impels magnanimity from so many.”

The very same day the first flight of evacuees arrived to Abu Dhabi, the AFCENT AWC set up a massive donation effort. Essential items observed missing from many Afghans--including shoes, clean clothes, and chargers for phones, which were necessary to provide pictures of personal identification documents--were purchased in bulk and distributed almost immediately.

“In addition to our unit’s generosity, we witnessed extraordinary liberality from UAE leaders who donated a massive sum of money to help Afghan refugees get on their feet upon entering the United States,” Winkley said.

The evacuees left Afghanistan with virtually nothing, and will start a new life in the United States or other countries willing to host.

“The sheer perseverance that was required to get on an airplane out of Kabul (at least from my perspective) is what has been most powerful,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Kelly Myers, director of operations, 380th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, noting that several of the families were travelling with multiple children, even some that were merely days old.

“This is personal for me,” said Myers, who spent a significant amount of time in Afghanistan during her career. “I’ve been fortunate enough to call some Afghans friends, some of whom are still trying to make it out, so to be able to help in some small way means a lot.”

Myers, who studied Dari at the Defense Language Institute Washington, admits her Dari had become rusty.

“I wanted to make sure that I was able to accurately convey what the evacuees said and to the right person,” she said. “With both having masks, the ability to read lips is taken away and made it much more difficult to understand what they were saying.”

Despite the challenges, Myers and the other team members were able to make an impact.

“Missions such as these underscore the importance of maintaining a force of cross culturally competent and language enabled Airmen,” Khan said.

These multilingual members considered themselves lucky to be able to assist. “The whole experience was powerful,” Winkley said.

Winkley’s wife, U.S. Air Force Maj. Artemis Winkley, assigned to the 48th Operational Support Squadron, Lakenheath Air Base, U.K., also speaks Farsi and Dari and she proved to be a critical asset to the translator team.

Artemis found it heartwarming talking to some of the women and calming their fears, simply by communicating to them in their native tongue, Winkley said.

“The women expressed deep relief after Artemis informed them they were now in Abu Dhabi, they were safe, and they would go to the Emirates Humanitarian City where they could shower and receive clothing and medical care,” Winkley said. “She could see the ease in people's faces by simply receiving answers about the process, whether about what would happen now or in the coming days. When Artemis saw one person's shoulders drop in relief, it almost made her weep.”

Khan echoed this sentiment mentioning that “seeing the smiles on the faces of the evacuees who heard us speaking their languages and being able to communicate effectively and reassure their safety were major highlights.” 

All the team members agreed that the long days were well worth the reward of helping those in need.

“Just being a part of it and being useful in a small but tangible way has genuinely been the best part of this,” Myers said.

Khan said the best part was “taking care of the kiddos; providing them with shoes or sandals if they were barefoot and giving them much needed doses of good ole American high fructose corn syrup…!”

These Airmen, along with all those who assisted in the evacuation of American citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan, continue to be strong ambassadors for the United States.

“I can attest that the result of our mission is highly likely to have enduring and constructive effects on the lives of these evacuees and their future generations,” Khan said.