As hundreds of Afghan evacuees arrive in Philadelphia, the Nationalities Service Center has been flooded with volunteer applications and donations.
Since Aug. 15, the nonprofit has raised nearly $100,000, and more than 700 people have offered to donate their time to the NSC, one of two local groups helping to resettle those fleeing Afghanistan.
“It just gives you an indication of the incredible generosity of Philadelphians,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, the organization’s executive director. “When times are tough, Philadelphians step up for people in need. They always have.”
City residents, along with HIAS Pennsylvania and the NSC, are organizing a massive effort to welcome the evacuees, some of whom began arriving Saturday at Philadelphia International Airport, one of two airports in the nation serving as entry points.
“We don’t have a lot of information about whether or not we will receive a lot of people at once, or if they’ll come slowly over time,” O’Sullivan told Metro. “So we have really just been getting our capacity ready and our board ready and our staff ready to convert to a large scale operation.”
NSC has told federal officials that it is prepared to resettle at least 200 people initially in the Philadelphia region, she added.
Since the Taliban took control of the country earlier this month, there has been a mad rush to remove U.S. citizens, allies and vulnerable Afghans, particularly since a suicide bomb attack last week killed 13 American troops and dozens of civilians.
Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated through flights out of Kabul from early Saturday morning to early Sunday, according to the White House.
Just over 500 evacuees arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday, and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said Sunday afternoon that hundreds more were expected to land later in the day.
Not all of the Afghans passing through the airport are expected to remain in the Philadelphia region.
They are being met in an airport terminal by volunteers offering culturally-appropriate meals, stuffed animals for children, diapers and hygiene products, city officials said.
Evacuees are also being tested for the coronavirus and given the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m very pleased with the high level of coordination occurring at PHL Airport to best welcome Afghan evacuees into our country,” Kenney said in a statement Sunday. “We anticipate this operation picking up speed in the coming days and appreciate the public’s support by way of volunteering and donating in the recommended ways.”
The Mayor’s Office said there is a need for people who speak Dari, Pashto, Urdu or Farsi to serve as translators.
Anyone who is interested must sign up for the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps by going to www.serv.pa.gov and picking “Medical Reserve Corps Organizations” from the drop down menu and then “Philadelphia MRC.”
U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as those who have been approved for a Special Immigration Visa, can leave from the airport and begin working with organizations to get settled.
Others, including people with incomplete paperwork or those applying for humanitarian parole, are given the opportunity to go to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County, New Jersey.
At the base, they can get medical screening, other vaccinations and speak with federal workers to apply for immigration status and work authorization, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said.
Such procedures, in normal circumstances, would usually take place in the person’s home country. The evacuees were screened and vetted for security purposes before being cleared to enter the country, the spokesperson said.
The United States Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, which is based at Fort Dix, has put out a call for clothing, baby items, towels, feminine products, blankets, shoes and toys for the Afghans staying at the base.
NSC is planning outreach to landlords, particularly near existing Afghan communities in Oxford Circle and Mayfair, to secure housing for the evacuees, O’Sullivan said. For those who do remain in the area, NSC will help orient them to the city.
“Resettling from a country you never wanted to leave is the hardest thing anyone could do,” O’Sullivan added. “Some come from outer provinces – more rural areas – and sometimes it’s about helping them to navigate things like SEPTA and the post office and all of it.”
HIAS Pennsylvania is looking for volunteers, donations, employers who are hiring, and realtors and landlords willing to help.
Gift cards are especially necessary, O’Sullivan said, because the evacuees will need clothes, kitchen items and nearly all household essentials. The NSC has also put together an Amazon Wish List.
“They’re things we can give a family and hand to them and have them make choices immediately about what they want,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s important when people have been so traumatized to give them some decision points to encourage agency over the situation.”