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How a crew of Philly restaurants and volunteers came together to feed Afghan evacuees at the Philadelphia airport

An 8 p.m. message set a network of volunteers in motion. “It’s the only group text I’ve ever been in that I haven’t hated,” said one of the organizers of the frenzied effort to feed Afghan families.

Healthy Picks deli prepared 40 meals of chicken, rice, and salad for Afghan evacuees stranded at PHL overnight on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
Healthy Picks deli prepared 40 meals of chicken, rice, and salad for Afghan evacuees stranded at PHL overnight on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.Read moreAbbe Stern

Philadelphians have been readying the welcome wagon, as hundreds of evacuees from Afghanistan arrive at Philadelphia International Airport.

Center City restaurant owner Judy Ni started tapping contacts for connections to halal restaurants last week in the event any refugees needed food. Initially she found little such need, thanks to the coordinated efforts of FEMA, the state’s departments of human services and emergency management, the Nationalities Service Center, and HIAS Pennsylvania. The evacuees, she learned, often spend as little as 20 minutes at PHL before they’re transported to accommodations with food and showers.

On Aug. 30, however, Ni received word that 40 people were stuck at the airport overnight while waiting for another military plane. The email came around 8 p.m. from a contact at World Central Kitchen, chef Jose Andres’ disaster-relief nonprofit. Within minutes, a crew of volunteers and restaurants sprang into action.

Ni was traveling out of state but reached out to Abbe Stern, a Philly food veteran currently representing the waste-prevention organization Too Good To Go, which works with restaurants to sell surplus food on its app. Stern had already approached restaurants about feeding refugees, but hadn’t firmed anything up. She was playing in a darts championship downtown when Ni’s text came in: “40 people are going to be trapped at the airport overnight. Any possibility of meals from any of your folks?”

Stern ran out of the bar and called a newly signed partner, Pasha’s Philly, a family-owned halal food truck that recently opened a brick-and-mortar location at Second Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. “‘You might not remember me, but I was the lady who came to talk to you about food waste — but I have a totally different thing to ask you about,’” Stern told Serhat Yuksel, one of Pasha’s operators. Forty meals were soon in the works.

After Stern hung up with Yuksel, she scoured her mental map of Rittenhouse for a second halal restaurant to recruit. She dashed over to Healthy Picks deli, a Too Good To Go client at 19th and Ludlow Streets, and explained the situation. Owners Tarek and Malik Mohamed Nahshal quickly agreed to make another 40 meals.

Meanwhile, Ni got a message from Jill Fink, executive director of the small-business assistance nonprofit The Merchants Fund. Fink didn’t have any restaurant contacts but volunteered to help transport food. Ni connected her to Stern to coordinate pickups, and Fink was out the door and on her way to Pasha’s by 9 p.m.

“It’s the only group text I’ve ever been in that I haven’t hated,” Fink said of the frenzied effort to feed the Afghan families. Once at the airport, she handed off food to DHS and TSA officials, who brought it to the terminal where the evacuees were stationed.

That’s how 80 hot servings of chicken, rice, and salad made it to PHL before 11 p.m. on Monday, less than three hours after word first circulated. (World Central Kitchen paid about $7 for each of the meals.)

Ni, Stern, Fink, and others are ready to activate again if need be — especially now that they know they can be ready at a moment’s notice. Both Pasha’s and Healthy Picks have said they can scale up supply with a little more time. They’re in good company: Fink has heard hundreds of Philadelphians have reached out to Nationalities Service Center to volunteer.

The need will go well beyond feeding people.

“There will be so much more work to do six, nine months from now — maybe even like two months from now — as these individuals and families get settled and are able to start addressing their trauma and have apartments or homes to go to,” Fink said. “My hope is that the amount of interest that there is in serving them now is sustained.”

» READ MORE: How to help Afghan refugees: Where you can volunteer, donate, and more in Philadelphia