Philadelphia International Airport has become the main hub for evacuees coming to this country from Afghanistan, with thousands having landed in the city and thousands more expected. As flights resume — they were paused last month by measles cases — we answer questions about the role of the city and region in the largest evacuation and resettlement since the end of the Vietnam War.
How many evacuees have landed in Philadelphia?
Precisely 11,969 as of Wednesday, according to city officials. Most have been bused from the airport to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, where they’re housed in temporary quarters. Almost everyone who has come to this country served the United States in a military, diplomatic, or development capacity, or is the family member of someone who did. Others worked in media, women’s organizations, or humanitarian groups.
Afghanistan fell to the Taliban six weeks ago, so where are these flights coming from?
They’re coming from first-stop, emergency evacuation centers in Germany, Bahrain, Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. People in government and humanitarian circles call these centers “lily pads,” places from which evacuees make the trip to the United States. The planes we saw leaving Kabul during the chaotic August evacuation were headed to these centers.
Are all the evacuees in the U.S. living at the base in South Jersey?
No. About 50,000 people are living at eight U.S. military installations across the country. From there they’ll be resettled to new homes in communities across the nation.
Will more Afghans be coming to Philadelphia?
Yes. Flights restarted on Tuesday. The flights into Philadelphia, and into Dulles International Airport, the other big welcome center, were halted on Sept. 11 after several evacuees came down with measles. A massive health campaign has now vaccinated more than 49,000 Afghan evacuees at military installations in the United States and at staging areas in Europe and the Middle East.
When will the Afghans be able to move to permanent homes?
That’s a big question. The government wants to move quickly. But for most evacuees that will still take weeks or months. Immigration processing takes time. Some arrivals have medical issues that need attention. Because few hold official immigration status, they must apply for permissions that would automatically go to some other newcomers. That includes authorization to work in the United States. More delay is created by the nationwide housing crunch, making it hard to find affordable apartments. And people who were recently vaccinated against measles must remain on bases for at least 21 days, to build full immunity.
Where will the Afghans go once they leave the military installations?
All over the country. So far, plans account for the resettlement of 37,000 people in 46 states. California is projected to receive the largest number, at 5,255, followed by Texas at 4,481. Pennsylvania plans to resettle 995, New Jersey 535, Delaware 30.
How many will stay permanently in Philadelphia?
As of now, 300. That figure could rise if the federal government puts more money and resources into housing, food, and medical care. Right now in Philadelphia, big expenses are falling on HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center, the major resettlement agencies, and on their donors. Some agencies around the country want to welcome more evacuees, but don’t have money to do it. Last week Congress allocated $6.3 billion in a short-term spending bill, but there’s more to be done.
Have any Afghans settled in Philadelphia yet?
Yes, 46 as of Sept. 30, with 31 more close to moving into new homes. Many of those evacuees hold Special Immigrant Visas, which provide for immediate government assistance, and they also have family members in the area to ease their transition. Resettlement agencies hope larger numbers of Afghans could start moving to permanent homes in mid-October, but that will depend on many factors.
Some GOP leaders claim that accepting Afghan evacuees creates a security risk. Are evacuees checked before coming here?
The evacuees in overseas centers undergo rigorous vetting before coming to the United States, including biometric and background screenings. The Department of Homeland Security has deployed 400 people from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service to conduct vetting at first-stop nations. The FBI and National Counterterrorism Center also are involved. Since 2009, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore has resettled nearly 10,000 Afghans without a single security incident.
Are evacuees landing in Philadelphia required to be vaccinated against COVID-19?
Yes, mostly. Evacuees coming to the United States carry different immigration permissions and statuses, which impacts vaccination requirements. Afghans who come here under “humanitarian parole” — the majority of arrivals — must be vaccinated as a condition of their parole. Those who receive Special Immigrant Visas, often approved for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military, likewise must be vaccinated as part of their visa. However, evacuees who are American citizens, or lawful permanent residents, are not required to be vaccinated. They have the option.
Are evacuees being tested for COVID-19?
Yes. Everyone arriving in the United States is tested for COVID-19 before being transferred to a military installation. Nationally, less than 1% have tested positive. Those who do are placed in quarantine.
Does the Philadelphia region have an Afghan community?
It does, composed of about 700 people. Most live in Northeast Philadelphia, concentrated in the Mayfair and Oxford Circle neighborhoods. Agencies hope to resettle newcomers there, where they’ll gain support from other Afghan immigrants and get help transitioning to American life. Much of that will depend on the availability of housing in this tight real estate market.
How can I help?
The Philadelphia region has been generous, so much so that some organizations called a pause on accepting used goods. They still need money. A cooking pot will always be a cooking pot, but money can be quickly redirected to new purposes as needs change. And right now change is about the only certainty in a big and evolving resettlement process. Places to donate can be found here and here.