How an Afghan barber set up shop at US base housing thousands

Starting with only hair clippers, barber says he repurposed items at Fort McCoy to set up shop for other evacuees.

Mohammad says he hopes to open a barber shop once fully resettled in the US [Zubair Babakarkhail/Al Jazeera]

Fort McCoy military base, Wisconsin, US – Mohammad* arrived in the United States from Afghanistan hoping to continue his beloved profession. But with nothing but hair clippers with him and little outside resources, the Afghan barber had to get creative.

So Mohammad repurposed what he could find at the Fort McCoy US army base in Wisconsin, where he and thousands of other Afghan refugees are waiting for their immigration cases to be processed.

A camp bed was transformed into a chair for customers; a recycled spray bottle was used to wet clients’ hair, and an American Red Cross bag that once contained blankets was turned into a hair-cutting cape.

Now, Mohammad operates a makeshift barbershop on a grassy lawn outside a military barrack at Fort McCoy.

“I had nothing at first. I was looking everywhere for things I could use. I bought a comb from the store at the base and started my service,” said Mohammad, telling Al Jazeera he had a lot of free time in his early days at the base and was eager to put his hair-cutting skill to use.

The expansive military facility is dotted with red-roofed, two-storey barracks, each hosting multiple Afghan families. Spaces between the buildings are often filled with children running around and playing.

Fort McCoy serves as a temporary home for nearly 13,000 Afghans awaiting immigration processing, after thousands fled Afghanistan following the country’s takeover by the Taliban in August.

Mohammad’s shop sits on a grass lawn outside a military barrack, where he moves around during the day to remain in the shade of the building’s white walls.

With a pointed, well-kept beard and slicked-back hair tied in a small knot atop of his head,  Mohammad said he is eager to turn his early endeavour into a business when he eventually leaves the base.

But for now, he is charging $10 for a haircut and $5 for a facial shave. Mohammad said he saw the opportunity for the business with thousands of Afghan men staying on the base without a place to cut their hair or shave.

“People like to have comfort in life; I would love to have a proper place and open a barbershop once I get resettled in a state,” he told Al Jazeera.

Mohammad is from Afghanistan’s southeastern Ghazni province, but he had been living in the capital Kabul before leaving the country after the Taliban takeover.

He and his family fled during the chaotic US-led evacuation mission after the Taliban captured Kabul. His sister, a US citizen, was visiting Afghanistan and was able to bring some of her immediate family members with her on an evacuation flight.

The Taliban entered Kabul in mid-August after the Afghan government collapsed amid the withdrawal of US forces.

The US military remained in control of the airport for nearly two weeks after the Taliban takeover. American forces evacuated more than 100,000 people, including US citizens, third-country nationals and Afghan allies.

US officials have said the country plans to take in 50,000 Afghans, most of whom were granted humanitarian parole, a programme that allows entry to the US while the evacuees’ permeant visas are being processed.

“Everyone was trying to run away; they would try every option they could to leave Kabul,” Mohammad said.

Back at Fort McCoy, Ebrahim, one of Mohammad’s customers, drew a contrast between the make-do barbershop at the US base and reports that the Taliban is banning barbers from shaving beards in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

“I’m so happy to be here and have all the freedoms,” Ebrahim, 26, told Al Jazeera English.

*All the interviewees are identified by pseudonyms or first names due to safety concerns.

Source: Al Jazeera