Contract Signed to Create Afghan Safe Haven at National Conference Center

The National Conference Center and federal government have signed a contract to bring Afghan asylum seekers to the Lansdowne hotel complex while they wait to find their permanent homes in the U.S.

County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said during a public briefing Thursday that she had just learned the contract had been signed a little over a half hour before the 7 p.m. meeting. News that the Department of Homeland Security was considering the site first broke publicly on Feb. 17 from Sheriff Michael L. Chapman. Randall and Supervisor Michael Turner (D-Ashburn) found out that day; Chapman said he learned for project Feb. 4, when federal authorities first came to see the site.

The National Conference Center until September will be used exclusively as a “safe haven” site for the federal government’s Operation Allies Welcome, the effort to resettle Afghans who helped the U.S. during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, their families, and others who are particularly vulnerable—such as women who are teachers, women’s rights activists, judges and prosecutors, journalists and others who are targeted by the Taliban. About 1,000 people per month could go through the facility as they arrive in the U.S. at Dulles Airport and wait to find their permanent homes here. Unaccompanied children will not be coming to the center.

Federal officials reassured neighbors that all services such as security and medical support will be handled on-site, and that before arriving the evacuees receive medical screenings, vaccinations and other services in another country. They have also will have gone through multi-agency screening and customs and arrive in the U.S. with legal status, receiving support and education through Operation Allies Welcome as they adjust to their new home.

The first group is expected to arrive around March 8 with the operation wrapping up in September. The Sheriff’s Office expects to have a memorandum of understanding signed with the Department of Homeland Security soon, with the federal government reimbursing the local government for additional expenses.

‘There’s Love and There’s Fear

Thursday evening, a panel of government officials including Randall, Turner, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s Col. Mark Poland, federal officials overseeing Operation Allies Welcome as well as National Conference Center General Manager John Walsh took questions until they stopped coming at midnight.

“To hear the stories and the relationships between our military and individuals that were interpreters for them, individuals that helped do security for them, it’s amazing when you hear the stories and you get to meet them,” said Robert Fenton, a longtime FEMA official who is overseeing Operation Allies Welcome. “And to be able to help them, to a group that was very vulnerable and had to move in a very short period of time back in August, has been very rewarding.”

“This is an amazing opportunity to really demonstrate the kind of community that Lansdowne is. It is a potential for a real success story, to have a chance to have our families interact and children play with their families, to figure out what’s going on and how we can help our allies,” Turner, a retired Air Force officer, said. “And that’s the key word. They are our allies. We leaned on them for 20 years. These families, if they go back to Afghanistan, will be killed by the Taliban. … As a retired military officer, I feel very strongly about the moral imperative to reach out and help these families in the safest and best way that we can do that.”

Three of the people on the panel live in Lansdowne, including Randall, Turner, and Secret Service official Truman Body, who will coordinate the operation at the National Conference Center.

Many people at the meeting expressed fear about the evacuees coming to The National, and frustration that they were not consulted in the decision and that they were not informed earlier. Much of the frustration from people in the neighborhood was directed at the National Conference Center.

“We feel as a hospitality company named The National, we’re very proud to be part of this mission, this humanitarian effort in our facility,” Walsh said.

“I used to be the president of the Lansdowne Association. I actually sit on the conservancy, of which the NCC’s a member,” Jeff Brown said. “So you are part of the master association, even though this is an individual corporation. You do have a responsibility to the Lansdowne brand, the safety of the community, our property values and the basically, the entire Lansdowne experience.”

“We’re volunteers on the Board of Directors and we work to improve and to keep this a good community,” said another Lansdowne Conservancy member. “When there’s a lack of transparency, and there’s a lack of communication, it’s not good.”

“We’re dealing with people’s daily lives, and you should have been transparent,” a neighbor said. “And I feel like in times to come, you’re going to need our support for things that you’re going to want to do on this property to keep your property alive commercially. So I would say on behalf of my neighbors, shame on you.”

Others came to express compassion for the people who will come through the facility escaping Afghanistan—and ask how they can help.

“For the allies, the reunification, how are we going to help with the education for the children that are arriving? What language opportunities will be there for adults that they can learn English?” asked one.

Another asked if the children of those families might be permitted to use the playground at the nearby school during the summer—the answer was no, they will not, but a playground may be put at the National Conference Center.

One person put a finer point on their sentiments:

“Most if not the majority of the folks you’re talking about advanced the American war effort in some way? Percentage wise, how confident do you feel that the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA can protect the community from these war heroes and their scary teenage boys?”

“I feel confident that we can protect them from the scary teenage boys,” Body said.

And some people had experience in the U.S.’s 20-year war in Afghanistan—either on deployment or fighting for their homeland—and pled tearfully with the audience to show compassion.

Dr. Dean Winslow is the senior medical advisory for Operation Allies Welcome. He said he’s a professor of medicine at Stanford on a leave of absence since last year to help with the COVID-19 response, as well as a veteran of six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“And by God, I’ve stood on the ramp too damn many times saluting a flag-draped transfer case, went on to a C-130. So these people are good people and it means so much to all of us who serve that we do the right thing as Americans,” Winslow said. “I’m also, I don’t mind saying, a person of faith and as a person of faith, there’s really two forces in the universe. There’s love and there’s fear, and I’ve heard a lot of fear tonight and that’s human nature. But what I would like you to do, all of you, wonderful people of Loudoun County is to embrace love and act from the basis of your better angels.”

Another person said he is an Afghan-American who came to the U.S. in 2017 and joined the U.S. Army Reserve.

“When I saw the fall of Afghanistan, my family was there. An American soldier’s family was there. And my brothers in the Marines, 13 of them died for my family. Thirteen of them—young men like me, younger than me, women, men—they died to evacuate my family. And I want to be part of this mission too,” he said.

He also told the story of his own family coming the U.S., bringing with them nine languages and earning degrees and finding work here.

“As an American solider I took an oath to defend and protect our Constitution and our people, and I promise you, they’re not going to hurt you. Please take a few minutes and go to their homes and talk to them. You’ll see what they are. They love this community; They love America,” he said. “They’re not thugs. They’re not thieves. They will not hurt you. They are desperate. They are homeless. They lost their homes, their hope. Their sons and children are left behind. They came with nothing. They are confused. That’s all they are.”

Federal agencies and private sector and nonprofit partners are collaborating with an organization called Welcome.US, a national nonprofit initiative that launched in September to channel support from the American public and the private sector to newly arrived Afghans and their families. Additionally another program, Sponsor Cicrcles, directly supports Afghans who have come to the U.S. through Operation Allies Welcome. More information is at sponsorcircles.org.

7 thoughts on “Contract Signed to Create Afghan Safe Haven at National Conference Center

  • 2022-02-25 at 12:53 pm
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    Funny that you did not include in your story that neither Turner in all of his bravado and arrogance nor Randall in all of her loving and accepting arms, were willing to spend one 24 hour period living among the refugees at the facility when a citizen asked them to show how much they trusted this solution.

    You also didn’t include the views of the people who complained about the increase in traffic and the lack of security there actually is going to be. Way to mislead the community yet again.

    • 2022-02-26 at 12:33 pm
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      Phyllis and big talker Mike declined to be among the 7th century, eh? That’s awesome. Buy that speaker a case of beer.

      I’d definitely have included that juicy bit in the reporting.

  • 2022-02-25 at 2:25 pm
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    “We feel as a hospitality company named The National, we’re very proud to be part of this mission, this humanitarian effort in our facility,” Walsh said. ”

    Translation: “We really really need this fat federal contract.”

  • 2022-02-25 at 2:48 pm
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    Obviously, there are mixed feelings in the community about this effort. But I’m optimistic the Afghan refugees will be welcomed with open arms. As Madame Curie said: “Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Good luck to all of the refugees! Happy Black History Month Loudoun!

    • 2022-02-28 at 7:36 pm
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      when you invite them into your home, I’ll give you massive respect.

  • 2022-02-25 at 5:11 pm
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    Wait! Sheriff Mike Chapman sent a flunky in his place to the meeting? After all that posturing, he doesn’t see the need to be there himself? This “ghosting” behavior from creepy Mike is not new. Anytime there is the possibility of any negative feedback, he hides. He went dark after the father of the sex crime victim was arrested at a school board meeting (he was too frightened to march in the 4th of July parade), and now, he disappears after the backlash from his screed against Homeland Security’s plan to house those loyal Afghan refugees who helped us during the war. How pathetic.

  • 2022-03-05 at 10:50 pm
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    Is it too late to modify the contract with DHS? Can we get Ukrainian refugees instead of Afghanistan refugees?

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