Just hours before the first C-17 filled with hundreds of evacuees from Afghanistan landed at Al Udeid Air Base in central Qatar on Sunday, Aug. 15, Chaplain Jammie Bigbey and most of the rest of the 8,000 U.S. air service men and women stationed there learned of the far-sooner-than-expected coming influx of humanity; what they couldn’t know was the trickle of hundreds of evacuees would soon explode into tens of thousands!
Bigbey, an Assemblies of God endorsed Air Force chaplain through AG U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries since 2013, explains that normally a chaplain’s time is spent being “present.” As part of a team of seven chaplains at Al Udeid, he and the other chaplains spread themselves out among the different aircraft personnel, helping out where they can, being available to the crews, and embedding in their units during the week — where the units go, they go.
However, the news that evacuees from Afghanistan were headed their way temporarily transformed the military base into what possibly could be called the world’s largest “upscale” hostel — it not only provided a place to sleep, but also came with free breakfast, lunch, and supper. At the height of the evacuation, there were 17,000 evacuees on site being cared for and an additional 2,000 service members from various branches of the military helping to meet needs.
READY TO RESPOND
“We were postured to help Americans coming out of Afghanistan, and at no point were we expecting to house people overnight,” Bigbey says. “The plan was to process people through and they’d be gone in a couple of hours, however, the planes coming in outpaced the ability to process people. We couldn’t have known what was coming, but we made the mission happen.”
Among the evacuees were Americans, British, Australians, and a number of reporters from around the world.
“But it seemed like a large majority were Afghans,” Bigbey says. “Our mission was to move Americans out of Afghanistan and meet our country’s moral and sacred obligations to Afghans who helped us over the last 20 years.”
When imagining what the scene must have looked like as a total of 57,000 evacuees arrived, lived for a while, and then were processed to numerous locations around the world to restart their lives in a 17-day period, one might be tempted to think of only stoic men and mature women navigating the traumatic upheaval as they faced a future with so many unknowns . . . but that would be a mistake.
“There were a lot of families — a lot of kids, moms, and dads,” Bigbey clarifies. “There were a lot of donations and funds that we used to buy shoes, clothes, and personal hygiene items for evacuees and there was a big demand for diapers and formula — there were so many babies . . . we actually had nine babies born here during the evacuation. I also saw many people who I don’t know if they had anything more than the clothes on their back, while others would have maybe one suitcase.”
In working to welcome and accommodate the floods of people arriving on base, Bigbey says that everyone pitched in — whether it be a colonel, the chaplains, flight crew members, mechanics, etc. — to set up cots, direct people to the proper locations, answer questions, provide meals, among a host of other responsibilities.
However, for the chaplains on base, which grew to include five additional chaplain teams (chaplains and their assistants), in addition to being an important part of assisting evacuees, they also paid attention to the military personnel — most who have had no experience or training in helping masses of people who are in the midst of a traumatic relocation.
“All service members were working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for 17 days — no days off,” Bigbey says. “Chaplains split up to work day and night shifts, being present in every hangar — some that held hundreds, while others were home to thousands.” Bigbey places the workload in perspective by noting that normally they have six or seven C-17s at the base; at the height of evacuation, they had 46.
Bigbey has nothing but the highest praise for the service members at Al Udeid as well as those who came to assist — from mechanics to medics. He says he witnessed service men and women doing their utmost to meet the needs of evacuees and work to provide a sense of safety and reassurance to those who fled Afghanistan.
In one instance, Bigbey recalls trying to calm and counsel a distraught young Afghan woman.
“I’m used to placing my hand on a shoulder or back, but their culture is different — you can’t touch a female,” Bigbey says. “And as her accent was really thick, I couldn’t understand what she was saying, so I worked to let my body language communicate that everything was going to be okay. She calmed down and then we able to understand her and help her get what she needed.”
Although all evacuees were processed through Al Udeid Air Base nearly two months ago and the base has returned to normal operation, the impact of what took place is still being felt. Bigbey says that service members are still processing what took place and that teams of chaplains and mental health workers are meeting regularly with service members to talk through the many — and sometimes unexpected — emotions that the evacuation stirred.
The demands of serving thousands of people who were experiencing the trauma of being evacuated as well as helping Air Base personnel process their extended effort, has left an impact upon Bigbey.
“It was very emotional,” he says. “It was just this feeling of such love. It was an opportunity to serve people at their greatest hour of need . . . I was so honored to have been available to serve another person in the midst of their tragedy, exile, displacement, or whatever it was. And to feel God’s love toward them and be a part of that was absolutely humbling.”
Kylee Gardner, 23, a Public Affairs specialist at Al Udeid Air Base, says the evacuation was the “craziest thing” she’s ever experienced.
“Nothing that I’ve ever done before in my life has ever made an impact like this has,” Gardner says. “It opened my eyes — that I was to be here for a reason: God put me here to help these people . . ., this is my purpose and why I’m here. I was grateful to be here and help people in any way I could.”
In moving forward, as many of Afghans have been relocated to the United States, Bigbey points out to Christians that for those wanting to reach out to Afghans, love makes connecting much easier.
“Love is simple, as a lot of times it can literally be a bottle of water, right?” he states. “As complicated as we can sometimes make our faith, love is easily expressed and crosses every cultural barrier — all it takes is just being available, being present, and offering the most basic of necessities.”
For those fearful of offending an Afghan neighbor, he notes that men should interact with men, and women with women, but perhaps above all, respect their religion.
“We may not agree with their religion, but for most Afghans it shapes every aspect of their lives, from the food they eat to the clothes they wear,” Bigbey explains. “By showing respect to their religion, you show respect to them.”
Of course, perhaps to bring Bigbey’s point closer to home, it might help to mentally reverse the situation; if a Christian was being evacuated and sent to live in a Muslim nation, would he or she tend to build a trusting relationship with a person who respected Christianity or someone who vehemently condemned it? Trust opens the door to deeper conversations.
“The opportunities that military chaplains have to spread the gospel seem unlimited,” states Chaplain James T. Denley, Military and Veterans Affairs endorser for the Assemblies of God. “Think about it. Chaplain Bigbey was the face of Jesus to thousands of people who had probably never laid eyes on a Christian minister. And there he was sitting with them, crying with them, comforting them, cleaning them, clothing them, and so much more. He was the embodiment of Matthew 25:31-41.”
“There’s a lot that we can choose to be afraid of,” Bigbey says when asked about cultural norms and establishing relationships with Afghans. “But as we read in our Scriptures, [relationship] can all begin with a cup of cold water.”