How to Build a Town

97 flights

19 days

13,000 Afghani guests

These seem like numbers pulled from a baffling middle school math problem where students have to figure out what information is relevant and what should be ignored. But really, they are all pieces of a puzzle that when combined create the blueprint for creating a town from scratch.

Take a reservist military base in the rural Midwest and bring in an interagency team that includes Department of Defense (active and reserves), Department of State (+USAID and Peace Corps staffers on detail), Department of Homeland Security (USCIS, ICE, Coast Guard), FBI, IRC, IOM, Red Cross, Team Rubicon, and a host of contracting companies and their employees.

Take those 13,000 guests and divide them into a north and south neighborhood, both with a military mayor whose team will get to know individuals and families. Have those mayors create neighborhood crews that will spend their days guaranteeing that the guests have their needs met, that everyone is safe and taken care of. Have those teams ensure that guests make it to their medical appointments, the mass vaccination clinic, their resettlement interviews, their clothing distribution opportunities, as well as have access to insulin, diapers, baby formula, and the ubiquitously desired tea. Have those neighborhoods filled not only with young soldiers in uniform but also children kicking soccer balls, flying kites, creating swings with bedsheets, and sidewalk art with chalk.

Take those 13,000 guests and billet them in barracks of roughly sixty people per building. Families, ever resourceful, will build out soft walls with eyehooks, wire, and sheets. They will create individual family spaces, pushing twin sized beds together to create larger beds, or moving the bedframes entirely to lay out mattresses on the floor in large, common familial sleeping spaces. They’ll line their shoes up at the edge of their area, maintaining the cultural standards of their left behind homes. They’ll designate one floor of bathrooms for men and the other floor for women and children. They’ll organize cleaning and lifestyle norms across families.

Take those 13,000 guests and assign them DFACs where they can get halal breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Make food readily available to offset the food insecurity that many of the guests have experienced. Experiment and evolve both recipes and logistics for feeding large families, those with mobility issues, and respecting cultural norms for gender separation. 

Factor in that 13,000 guests means new American babies are born nearly every day. It means birthdays and engagements and even new pregnancies. It means scrapes and bruises and more serious physical and mental medical health concerns. It also means arguments and frustrations. It means processing trauma, both individual and collective. It means integrating religious, cultural, and geographic diversity into a single population.

97 flights.

That’s how, in less than three weeks, you build the largest town in Monroe County, Wisconsin.

That’s how you change the lives of 13,000 Afghan refugees and hundreds of American support staff. 

That’s humanity at its best.

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