By Sabine Siebold
BERLIN:A sprawling U.S. air base in a remote part of Germany has become a temporary home for Afghan children separated from their parents during the chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport, and officials are scrambling to reunite them with their families.
The two dozen or so children housed in heated tents at Ramstein air base near the western town of Kaiserslautern share their fate with several hundred other minors left unaccompanied after the airlift.
The UN's children's agency UNICEF said it had registered around 300 separated and unaccompanied children linked to more than 120,000 evacuations from Afghanistan, with some ending up in countries such as Germany and Qatar.
"Some cases can be solved very quickly, if the parents got onto a different plane or are already at Ramstein or in the United States, for example," a U.S. State Department official said, adding cell phones were a help.
"Many are in contact with some relatives. If they have access to a phone, they can tell us within 5 minutes where their parents are. It's wonderful."
Ramstein is the U.S. military's gateway to Europe and part of the biggest U.S. military community overseas, with around 50,000 service members, civilian employees and their families living in the region.
On the base, U.S. officials and UNICEF experts have been supporting Afghan children sheltering there until they can be reunited with their families or moved into foster care in the United States.
There are play areas, toys and a bouncy castle, as well as child specialists who can help with mental health issues, should they be needed.
"Family separation is one of the most stressful things that can happen to a child," the official said.
"Many of the kids are very scared, having embarked on an extraordinary new journey across the world. Many of them have never been on a plane before. We try to make them feel as safe and as comfortable as possible."
At the same time, staff at Ramstein try not to touch too deeply on what the children have experienced in Afghanistan and during their evacuation.
"Some are volunteering information and want to talk. But this is a point of transit, we are careful not to dive too deeply," the official said. "We know that it's no good to ask them again and again and again."
Around 140 flights carrying roughly 34,000 evacuees from Afghanistan have arrived in Ramstein since the largest airlift in U.S. history began in mid-August, according to the U.S. military, making the base the biggest port of arrival in Europe.
Some 12,000 evacuees are still living in tents on the base and in another U.S. barracks nearby. The rest have been moved on to the United States or other safe locations.
On average, the so-called Youth Pod at Ramstein houses around two dozen unaccompanied minors, although numbers fluctuate as children are reunited with their families and more flights arrive.
"The overwhelming majority have been girls, with the remaining handful adolescent boys," the official said.
Later on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will get a chance to talk with children and staff at the Youth Pod when he visits Ramstein.
"He will see the bouncy castle, tent filled with donations and toys, and learn about all the services being provided to unaccompanied minors and vulnerable individuals here at Ramstein," a State Department spokesman at Ramstein said.
"He will also hear about ongoing operations to reunify them with their families."