Afghans arrived near a small Virginia town, exposing two different versions of America https://t.co/BgVtxoNzrS
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) September 25, 2021
The Washington Post once again demonstrating why local reporting is important:
BLACKSTONE, Va. — Mayor Billy Coleburn finished his burger, pulled out his cellphone and braced himself for the two dozen Facebook notifications and slew of unread messages waiting for him. “Let’s see how bad they are,” he said, sitting in a booth at the Brew House on Main Street, in the town of roughly 3,600 people in rural southside Virginia.
The rumors seemed to be evolving each day, ever since an international humanitarian crisis made its way across the world and then landed in Blackstone’s backyard. Just over a mile from the town limits, past a thick tree line and behind the heavily guarded gates of Fort Pickett, there were now more Afghan evacuees than Blackstone residents.
Roughly 5,900 men, women and children who had escaped the chaos and the Taliban in Kabul were now sleeping on cots in barracks and tractor trailers at the Virginia National Guard installation, one of three military bases in Virginia where Afghans are being temporarily housed before getting resettled in communities across the United States.
The makeshift village was largely invisible to anyone beyond the gates of the military base, as were the Afghans within it. They were nowhere to be seen in the town of Blackstone, but somehow seemed to be everywhere too, as their recent arrival transfixed the community.
Coleburn watched as his town seemed to crack into two different Americas: one, welcoming the evacuees with floods of donations and compassion, and the other, apprehensive and suspicious, believing the mere presence of the foreigners posed a threat to the town’s safety. A recent arrest of one Afghan evacuee at Fort Pickett on charges of grand larceny, after he was accused of stealing a car on base, had only inflamed their suspicions…
Coleburn, who is also the owner and editor of the local newspaper, the Courier-Record, says it broke the news in late August that Fort Pickett would likely be called on by the federal government to host thousands of Afghans who left in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
Now the front page of his weekly newspaper was splashed with a bold red headline, “Afghan Numbers Rise,” next to the mug shot of the arrested Afghan man, and its pages had suddenly become a sounding board for the split opinions on welcoming their new neighbors…
Blackstone, a diverse community where roughly half the residents are Black, is also in a deeply conservative area of Virginia, with a big military and veteran population. Men and women in army green fatigues from Fort Pickett can often be seen walking along the pristinely kept Main Street, passing recently remodeled storefronts. As he walks to the Brew House for lunch, Coleburn picks up a stray chewing gum wrapper on the sidewalk and throws it in a trash can. “Drives me crazy,” he says.
The town, he says, has taken immense pride in being the home of Fort Pickett, Blackstone’s major employer. So when he heard some complaints after the base was selected as a housing location for Afghan evacuees, “I said, folks, you can’t sit here and say, ‘We love Fort Pickett,’ and then all of a sudden we get a mission and go, ‘Oh hell no, we don’t want that.’”
Still, to Coleburn, Fort Pickett did seem a bit of an unlikely place to bring thousands of evacuees with critical needs, many arriving with little else than the clothes they were wearing. “This is in a rural area with not a lot of infrastructure. The nearest hospital is 35 miles away,” Coleburn said, and as an added challenge, “a bunch of people are wide-eyed and watching Fox News. Ain’t a lot of MSNBC ‘Morning Joe’ fans around here.”…
Rebecca Freeze, an Iraq combat veteran who lives about 10 miles east of Blackstone in an unincorporated community called Darvills — “a suburb of Blackstone,” she jokes — had been to Fort Pickett after the arrival of the Afghans and had seen what was happening in Blackstone. And what she witnessed had, at least on one occasion, brought her to tears.
Her friend thought to start a Facebook page for donations and volunteers to help their new neighbors but got “some kickback from people who knew her that wasn’t positive,” Freeze said. “So I told her, well let me start the Facebook page, because after 27 years in the Army, let ‘em come. As a female combat veteran I can get PMS and PTSD at the same time.”
So she started the Facebook page — Helping Afghans in Southern VA — and instead of any negative reactions she got a rush of eager volunteers, turning the page into a mosaic of unique contributions. A local artist used proceeds from the artwork he sold to buy soccer balls for Afghan kids. A chiropractor’s office started collecting toys. Renee and David Cannon, the owners of a clothing store on Main Street that had gone out of business, donated culturally appropriate merchandise to the Afghans.
Renee Cannon, 65, said her father, Adren Quest Hance Sr., sponsored two young Vietnamese refugees — and later, the other family members of those refugees — to come live with them in their small town in Hanover County after the Vietnam War, helping them find jobs and learn English and build new lives. When thousands of Afghans began arriving at Fort Pickett, she wanted to live up to what he had taught her years before…