FORKED RIVER, NEW JERSEY - Torie Fisher offered her cavernous Backward Flag Brewing Co. in this coastal community as a collection center for donations to Afghan refugees, who had arrived at the nearby U.S. air base.
"It's just the human thing to do. They are humans like us," said Fisher, an Army veteran who served in Iraq as a Black Hawk crew chief and door gunner, and an "Army brat" who was born in Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Brett Behrens, a police officer for Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, and a former counterintelligence contractor in Afghanistan, was one of the first to help out after seeing a post by a fellow police officer.
"A lot of the people there are really decent people," Behrens told VOA, describing the Afghans he met during his 27-month tour. "They weren't able to pack. They don't have jobs. They don't have homes. They don't have anything."
After word got out on social media that donations were being accepted at New Jersey's Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, one of seven domestic U.S. bases housing Afghan refugees, many residents offered up clothing, water and household goods. They said they wanted to provide anything to help the refugees, many of whom had arrived with only the clothes they were wearing.
"I think it's the humane thing to do. I don't know how to say this, but it wasn't right what was done. I don't believe in the way we are pulling out of Afghanistan," said Roselinda Brown, who, along with her husband, Thomas Brown, came to the brewery with donations of winter clothes. She told VOA she was also motivated because her nephew had served in Afghanistan.
"We are a very fortunate country to have the freedoms that we have. The people who were helping us in Afghanistan were kind of thrown under the bus by our administration," said Thomas Brown, who described himself as a conservative Republican. "They are looking for the freedoms that we have here in this country. I feel like if you can help, you should."
But other Americans are vexed about the government bringing refugees to the U.S.
"We have veterans living on sidewalks, we have homeless areas where even children are living in tents. Who is rescuing them?" asked local resident Marena Agnoli in a social media message.
Some politicians and lawmakers are asking the same questions. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and others assert that some of the refugees are going off base, a fear echoed by some Americans living near U.S. bases where refugees have been housed since being airlifted from Afghanistan.
Some Americans who opposed bringing the refugees to the U.S. said they were concerned about the spread of the coronavirus and whether the refugees were vetted well enough to guarantee that no Taliban terrorists would be mixed among the genuinely needy. Others worried about U.S. tax dollars being spent on international rather than domestic needs.
"Now we have hundreds of homeless people in Louisiana due to the hurricane," Agnoli, who lives in New Jersey, the state that pays the third-highest taxes on earnings in the U.S., wrote to VOA. "Shouldn't we rescue our homeless and poor before we take on foreigners? We have hundreds of illegal immigrants pouring into our country, can we support all of them? Will higher taxes make us homeless?"
In a press conference on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed some of these concerns: "There is a process that includes not just a thorough background check and vetting process, but as individuals come to the United States, some will end up going to military bases, where they will have access to a range of resources, including vaccines."
Psaki said about 120,000 people had been airlifted from Afghanistan in the past few weeks, including 5,500 U.S. citizens.
"We are leveraging and working with all of the incredible refugee resettlement organizations around the country who are eager and open to helping these Afghan refugees. Also to veterans' organizations who are eager and open to helping these Afghan refugees resettle in the United States and work through as orderly a process, using every lever of government — from the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security — to move this process as rapidly as we can," Psaki said.
"I'm sorry, but I do not trust that a good portion of (bad actors) are among the refugees," said Samantha Keane, who lives within an hour from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and supports the airlifting of Afghan women and children. She fears for the future of the female refugees, she said, who will be responsible for themselves and their children once they leave the base and will be treated poorly in Afghan enclaves — or by Americans who see only a backwards culture in relation to women's rights.
"They will be discriminated against once in the communities. People have zero clue about the history these women and children have endured," said Keane, who wrote her college thesis about Afghan women.
Behrens said he understands the skepticism and resentment among Americans.
"If you can't do something to help, you can't. You can't donate to every single charity that's out there," he said. "Some people have mixed feelings. There's homeless people here. But if people don't do it strictly because they are Afghans …" he said, trailing off.
"There are plenty of Afghan nationals that have done more for the United States military than most Americans, who have literally never done anything besides post something on social media or complain about something and do nothing about it," Behrens said.
"They have all these opinions about a region that they've never been to, about people they've never seen or talked to, or they have legitimately no idea what they're talking about."
Fisher, the Backward Flag Brewing Co. founder, admits to receiving hate mail along with an inbox full of offers to donate.
"The response has been mixed. Some people have this idea that they are coming here to leech off our country," Fisher told VOA.
But the brewery has been filled with and emptied of donations several times, and they continue to roll in.
"A lot of those people are our allies," Fisher said. "They helped our soldiers, our military, to complete their mission. And the people that have come here are those people and their families. … We should say 'thank you' to them, not 'send them back' or 'kick them out.'"
"Some people say, 'There's a risk. Some of them might be terrorists,'" she said. "It's possible. But you know what? We also have that living in our country amongst us every day. The human thing to do is give these people sanctuary if we have the ability to do that."
Fisher emphasized the service that many Afghans had provided to the U.S. during the 20 years the country fought in Afghanistan.
"In my opinion, many of those people probably served our country a hell of a lot more than most people that actually live in this country," she said.
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.