Loudoun Co. could be ‘safe haven site’ for Afghan asylum seekers

Loudoun County, Virginia, is being considered as a site for the temporary relocation of asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, told WTOP that the contracts aren’t signed yet, but that the asylum seekers would arrive starting “after March 1.”

Randall said the new arrivals would be in the county for a month “while they are headed to the final destinations, which will be all over the country.”

While the location hasn’t been picked, Sheriff Mike Chapman said in a statement that the site would be the National Conference Center, and that asylum seekers, whom he said mostly were coming from Qatar, would stay in Loudoun County in groups of 1,000 for a month each through September.

Ashburn District Supervisor Mike Turner said, “I think this is an enormous opportunity for Northern Virginia, and specifically for the Lansdowne community, to welcome people who literally fought alongside us for 20 years, who have been uprooted, whose lives are threatened in their homeland.”

Randall said federal officials told them the asylum seekers have been vetted and screened, and comprised about 65% women and children. “There are women who were schoolteachers and taught girls — and, of course, under the Taliban, girls are not allowed to be taught. They are embassy workers. They are interpreters for the U.S. military. They were guides; they are allies.”

Chapman told WTOP he felt the possible arrival had been sprung on him, and had concerns about coordinating public safety and other services.

“Homeland Security — I mean, they got a great team over there, but they were going individually to different stakeholders. And that was my concern: ‘Well, wait a minute, how about we just have a roundtable meeting?’” He said one was scheduled for Tuesday at his office with federal and county officials, as well as faith-based organizations who can help.

While Randall and Turner said the “safe haven site” would have federal security, Chapman said most such sites have been military bases, whereas with the proposed location, “there’s nothing to prevent anybody from walking off that location there. And if that happens, and you have language problems … it’s important that we know so that we have appropriate language capabilities to communicate in Farsi or Punjabi or whatever language … because we need to be able to understand the, you know, the Afghans, as they need to be able to understand us.”

That said, Chapman added that the establishment of a roundtable meeting alleviated a lot of his concerns: “I feel a whole lot better than I did just a day or two ago.”

At a briefing with officials from the Department of Homeland Security on Friday, Turner said he asked about setting up a welcoming committee to interact with the new arrivals on a weekly basis “to kind of share cultural exchanges and get to know each other and let them know that they’re welcome here. And he said, ‘That’s happened at every safe haven that we’ve set up so far — the community has really embraced these people and welcomed them in a really positive way.’ So I think it’s an opportunity for a real success story, and I’m pretty excited.”

WTOP’s Kristi King and Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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