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First Afghan families arriving in Philly as resettlement agencies prepare for a surge of newcomers

“Bring us who you got – whoever needs help, we’ll help them,” said Margaret O'Sullivan, director of Nationalities Service Center

Romana Gordynsky is pictured near her home in Quakertown, Pa., one Monday, August 23, 2021. She's a member of the "welcome team" who are called upon to meet newcomers at the airport. Many times refugees don't have what's known as a "US tie," a friend or relative, so Romana goes to meet them - the first American they'll meet in this country.
Romana Gordynsky is pictured near her home in Quakertown, Pa., one Monday, August 23, 2021. She's a member of the "welcome team" who are called upon to meet newcomers at the airport. Many times refugees don't have what's known as a "US tie," a friend or relative, so Romana goes to meet them - the first American they'll meet in this country.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When the call comes, tonight or tomorrow or next week, in the morning or at midnight, Romana Gordynsky will hop in her car and head to the airport.

For some Afghans arriving in Philadelphia, she may be the first American to greet them.

She’ll tell them, “You’re safe.” And, “You are welcome here.”

She and the other members of the Nationalities Service Center (NSC) “Welcome Team” will bring flowers and balloons, and hand-drawn cards from schoolchildren. They’ll tote big signs that say, “Welcome to the USA.”

And they know no amount of assurance or enthusiasm can fully comfort people who have been driven from their homeland by war and violence, whose possessions consist of their clothes and their trauma.

“We try to make that moment as good as possible,” said Gordynsky, 48, an NSC case manager who herself is an immigrant, from Ukraine. “We want to love and support them.”

» READ MORE: Philly residents rally in Northeast to support Afghan neighbors and incoming refugees

The first few families have begun to arrive in Philadelphia from Afghanistan, including a family of eight that crowded into the Mayfair home of a former Afghan translator. More are in the pipeline, their numbers unknown.

But with the Kabul airport surrounded by chaotic crowds, and little specific information coming from the U.S. government, resettlement agencies here don’t know if the flow will be a trickle or a flood.

“You almost have to over-plan, because you don’t want to be caught short,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, NSC’s executive director.

For NSC and HIAS Pennsylvania, the other big city resettlement agency, that means being ready with everything needed for families starting from nothing — housing, furniture, bedding, dishes, cribs, diapers, clothes, food. Both agencies seek donations of new or gently used goods.

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

“So much depends on how many people we get out, and how quickly we do it,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.

She expected that by this point, 10 days after the country fell to the Taliban, a torrent of people would be arriving. Instead, the agency is getting calls from Afghan Americans frantically trying to get family members out of the country.

The preference is for refugees arriving in Philadelphia to be met by what in humanitarian circles is called an “American tie,” a friend or family member who is already living in the area. But some people have no one, and that could become particularly common now, given the small size of Philadelphia’s Afghan community.

That’s when Gordynsky and others step up, making sure that refugees aren’t left standing at an airport where they can’t read the signs or speak the language.

» READ MORE: In a Kabul under Taliban control, Philly-area Quakers try to get one man out to safety

U.N. groups are warning of an Afghan humanitarian catastrophe amid an air evacuation that, while picking up speed, has been defined by mayhem and uncertainty. The U.S. military transported about 11,000 people from Kabul to other countries from Sunday to Monday. The next 24 hours saw 21,600 evacuated by coalition forces, according to the Pentagon.

Afghans coming to the United States are supposed to be flying into four places, to Houston, Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. But some people are simply showing up — one family landed in Dallas, then drove 1,500 miles to Philadelphia.

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County will be welcoming Afghans into the United States, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor said during a news briefing Monday. There was no immediate confirmation on whether anyone had arrived in Burlington County as of Tuesday morning.

Most of those who have made it out of Kabul hold Special Immigrant Visas, available for Afghan interpreters and others who assisted NATO forces. But thousands of others remain in the country. News reports say Taliban fighters are going house to house, searching for Afghans who worked with the United States, while others with no official connection are desperate to leave.

“Every life is in question and in danger,” said Said, an Afghan who came to Philadelphia in 2019, his life endangered by his work as an interpreter in the U.S. Embassy. “My brothers are there, who worked with the government and U.S. agencies. I’m concerned, and I’m sad, about my family and about all Afghans.”

The Inquirer is withholding Said’s full name for safety reasons.

His homeland — now renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — is slightly smaller than Texas, a landlocked nation of 37 million people where living standards rank among the lowest in the world.

» READ MORE: Former Afghan interpreters in Philly watch and worry amid a scary, deadline effort to evacuate their colleagues

Even before the Taliban took control, Afghanistan faced shortages of housing, water, electricity, and jobs. An estimated 13 million people don’t have enough food. Less than half the population can read.

So far this year, at least half a million Afghans have been “displaced” by war and violence, meaning they were forced to flee their homes but did not leave the country, according to the United Nations.

Those who make it to the United States will join an Afghan population of about 156,000, a smattering compared with the nearly 11.6 million immigrants from Mexico, or the 2.7 million from China and 2.4 million from India.

One of the larger communities resides in the city of Fremont, Calif., south of San Francisco, where Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini set part of his best-selling novel The Kite Runner.

About 700 Afghans live in Philadelphia, centered in Mayfair and Oxford Circle, two Northeast neighborhoods that have become increasingly diverse in recent years. A couple of shops offer special Afghan bread that’s baked and brought in from Virginia.

“There are families on the way, [and] there are others that are sheltering in place in Kabul, hiding right now, waiting to find a way to make it to Philadelphia,” said Adi Altman, NSC’s manager of Welcome and Community Supports.

Gordynsky, the case manager, tells refugee families that she knows what they’re feeling, the awful confusion of landing in a new country, perhaps having left behind parents, siblings, and grandparents — even adult children.

She came to visit the United States in 1994, then applied for asylum, citing religious persecution in Ukraine. She was without her parents and sisters for nine years.

Still, she built a life in America.

She and the Welcome Team assure new arrivals that there’s a plan and a path for them to do the same, to settle and prosper in the United States. And that they’ll carry it out together.

“People need attention. They need support,” Gordynsky said. “We’ll be ready.”

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.