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The Library as English Classroom

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National Conference Center Takes Point for 'Operation Allies Welcome'

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by The National Conference Center

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

In April, the halls of The National Conference Center (NCC) buzzed with prayer, conversation and the clatter of plates and silverware during the evening breaking of the fast during the Islamic month-long celebration of Ramadan. The Mezzanine level on most evenings sported blankets spread out on the floor for family picnics. Out behind the center, kids played soccer. Everywhere there was chatter and laughter and on every face unmistakable smiles of relief.

It’s not what you’d expect of a major convention venue emerging from a pandemic. But, while most hospitality venues continue to struggle as every-day life returns to normal, at NCC, all 917 rooms are filled with some 1,300 Afghan refugees, and the kitchen bustles to prepare Halal meals with the assistance of two recently hired Afghan chefs. These unusual guests are the beneficiaries of a U.S. government program called Operation Allies Welcome (OAW), which aims to resettle 30,000 friends of Uncle Sam from the war in Afghanistan.

John Walsh, General Manager of the center, said that The National’s current residents include a range of American allies, from journalists to human rights activists, humanitarian workers and others who supported U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, often at significant personal risk. The Department of Homeland Security and Defense Department are working together to welcome the refugees with medical services, housing and meal services. They’ll also support non-governmental organizations to help to relocate the Afghans and ease their transition into the U.S., although finding an avenue to support the effort takes no small amount of effort.

Security at the compound itself is tight, and folks at The National aren’t actually allowed to direct donation efforts because the government must first vet “community giving circles” – complete with background security checks – who are willing to help welcome Afghans to their new neighborhoods all across the country. (See sidebar.) 

For now, NCC’s ample grounds provide security and community, and most of the Afghans’ first exposure to life in America. NCC’s food and beverage team is coordinating with cultural advisors to provide more than 4,000 meals per day. Some 680 have been resettled, but more are expected as groups are placed.

John, who currently lives at NCC for long stretches, says that the Afghans began arriving in March and will continue to come through September 28. Remarking on the “sense of relief” on every face, he says NCC personnel leap to provide a quick meal and a room for the tired travelers. To meet the rigors of Ramadan, NCC’s culinary team in April arrived at 2 a.m. to start the traditional pre-dawn breakfast. Dinner started at 7 p.m. and went until 10 p.m. Conference rooms were converted to prayer rooms or classrooms for English lessons or other schoolwork for the children.

“Children are so resilient,” says John. “We have babies to four-year-old’s to middle-schoolers and teenagers. The older kids are all running around our courtyard like it’s a schoolyard when the weather is nice. There are colored chalk drawings of trees and people and hearts, and quite often they’ll write ‘thank you’ as part of their drawing on the blacktop.” Spontaneous soccer games often involve bellmen and others used to serving more scripted roles. “It’s fun to watch a 10- or 12-year-old taking our bellmen to school on the field!” John adds.

A make-shift “teen center” takes advantage of a recreation area pool table and video games. “You’ll see teachers interacting with students teaching not just English but American culture and art. There’s even a computer lab,” John explains. “That’s interesting because when this campus was originally thought out, it was designed as a learning center. Now you’ll see groups of families sticking around in the dining hall chatting and practicing the words they learned for the day.”

He added that many kids also have learned to thumb wrestle, a game John routinely loses. “It’s just fun for all of us. We couldn’t be doing anything better at this point in our careers and we’re fortunate to be part of this great humanitarian effort.” More seriously, he adds, “I can't say enough about my team on what they're able to accomplish. We had to launch this effort in December, going from 25 employees up to 150, and we're still hiring.” For NCC’s staff, “it's not about getting paid for a job. It's about doing the right thing in a certain moment of time. My executive team and the managers all worked 18 to 21 hours a day to get this launched. That's an incredible commitment, but they realized how important this was so refugees to have a place to come to.”

Locals who make a habit of walking around the conference center still have access to those trails; there’s just orange fencing intended to indicate non-entry. Naturally, that’s one of the fences the kids routinely shoot their soccer balls beyond, as if to see how the outside world will react. Typically, it’s with good humor and excited anticipation of the end to a different kind of quarantine.

A “media day” is planned for May, when we hope we’ll have more to share via social media. In the meantime, if a soccer ball sails your way, don’t hesitate to throw it back.

The Department of Homeland Security’s OAW page points to, where seems to be the nearest approved hub listed. ReactDC’s Sponsor Circles welcome Afghan newcomers into the community and “impact a family for a lifetime by helping them stand on their feet.” (Contact to learn more.)

  • The National Conference Center
  • Hilal food prep for 1,300
  • The Library as English Classroom
  • Chalk Drawing