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In the Philly region, a massive effort to help Afghan families

The Philadelphia region has mounted an enormous, even overwhelming effort to assist Afghanistan evacuees, nearly 12,000 of whom have landed here so far

Linda Brock (left) and Adele Margulies organize donations to HIAS Pennsylvania last week at the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. The donated items are being sorted and organized to help families from Afghanistan.
Linda Brock (left) and Adele Margulies organize donations to HIAS Pennsylvania last week at the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. The donated items are being sorted and organized to help families from Afghanistan.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

In six weeks, donations to help arriving Afghan families topped $539,000 at Nationalities Service Center.

The resettlement agency’s Center City office has become clogged with boxes, as people send new goods — everything from teakettles to spoons to waste baskets — from Amazon Wish List. So many people signed up to become volunteers that NSC had to stop accepting applications after the list surpassed 1,000 names.

“The goodwill, and the welcoming, that Philadelphians have shown the Afghanistan evacuees has been immeasurable,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, executive director of NSC. “People have been extraordinary.”

The Philadelphia region has mounted an enormous, even overwhelming effort to assist Afghanistan evacuees, nearly 12,000 of whom have landed here since Aug. 28. Flights into the United States have been temporarily halted after positive measles tests among four Afghans, and last week the CDC said it now knows of 16 cases.

HIAS Pennsylvania, the other big city resettlement agency, received more than $700,000 in monetary donations during August and September. It had to rent a second storage unit to hold all the household items being donated to help families set up apartments.

So much stuff has come in that last week HIAS called a pause on further donations of secondhand goods.

“We honestly have received so much at this point that we don’t know what we’ll need in the future,” said Daniella Nahmias Scruggs, HIAS’s director of development.

Donations of physical goods to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where thousands of evacuees live in temporary housing, also have been paused. Information on giving money can be found on the base Facebook page.

The generosity seen in this region is occurring in communities across the country, amid broad public support for resettlement.

More than 70% of Americans favor welcoming Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or military, according to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll. That includes majorities of Republicans, and of white and rural voters, who offered less support for refugees from other nations.

“Americans feel a debt of gratitude to these individuals who really stood by us, over 20 years, and stood by our men and women who were overseas,” said Wendy Feliz, who directs the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. “Americans really do feel a sense that they want to pay them back for what they did for us.”

In Bryn Athyn, Nicole Bau-Madsen and several friends asked people in town to drop donations at a local church. In one day — four hours, actually — 52 carloads of new and gently used goods showed up. Along with $13,000 in cash.

“It grew in a big way,” she said. “Thinking about these poor people … I can’t imagine the heartache and difficulty.”

The money bought new goods that included 444 blankets, which are important for those being resettled. A family of six may use only two cooking pots, but everyone in the house needs a blanket.

Bau-Madsen and her colleagues managed to deliver the goods, dresses to towels to toys, to the South Jersey base shortly before donations were paused.

The Muslim Federation of South Jersey has delivered specific, requested goods to what it estimates are 9,500 Afghans at the base. Those supplies included Qurans and prayer rugs, because 99% of Afghans are Muslim.

“Our community in South Jersey is a giving community — everyone, not just the Muslim community,” said Ahsan Jafry, the federation secretary.

Many Afghans left everything behind, fleeing for their lives as the Taliban took over the country.

And many entered the United States under what is called “humanitarian parole.” That’s different from being a refugee, a classification that offers significantly more access to government benefits and aid.

Unless Congress changes that, or awards additional funds, the needs of Afghan newcomers promise to be enormous.

“I want to help,” said Susan Graham, of Middletown Township, who saw in the tumultuous fall of Kabul the echo of America’s desperate flight from Saigon in 1975. “It breaks my heart.”

She wants to donate her family’s large collection of Fisher-Price toys. The little schoolhouse, merry-go-round, and Sesame Street village, along with all the tiny people, should go to a family with children, she said.

The Biden administration intends to vet and resettle more than 50,000 evacuees, thousands of whom are living at eight U.S. military bases.

They traveled to the United States from first-stop processing centers in Germany, Spain, Qatar, and other countries and will eventually be settled in communities across the nation.

For example, most of the 49 Afghans who will go to North Dakota will resettle in Fargo, known not only for its ties to the Oscar-winning movie but also for its snows and frigid winter weather.

California is projected to receive the largest number of evacuees, 5,255, followed by Texas at 4,481, according to State Department data reported by Axios.

New Jersey is slated for 535. Pennsylvania expects to resettle 995, including 300 in Philadelphia, 100 in Erie, and 75 in Upper Darby, according to people familiar with the planning.

All those numbers could rise.

So far, only a few Afghan families have moved into apartments or houses in the Philadelphia region. Those tend to be people who entered the country under Special Immigrant Visas — often they worked for the Americans as translators — and have friends or family in the area.

In the meantime, humanitarian agencies and volunteers are trying to impose order on a flood of donated stuff.

Relief agencies advise: The best donation is money, because it can be immediately directed toward new purposes when needs change. And change is practically guaranteed.

“The outpouring has been overwhelming. Mind-boggling,” said Linda Brock, a volunteer who manages the sorting of goods donated to HIAS.

On Thursday at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, she and volunteer Adele Margulies confronted two big rooms piled with boxes and plastic bags.

Donations are triaged, divided into needed goods in ready-to-use condition, such as dining sets; items that could be useful with minor cleaning; and stuff to be discarded or sent elsewhere.

HIAS marshals goods that people need to set up new homes, including pans, cooking utensils, flatware, dishes, linens, sheets, shower curtains, detergent, cleaners, toilet paper, paper towels.

Every useful piece is money saved for families.

“This is food on the table. Heat in winter,” Margulies said as she sorted.

The sorting, storing, and transporting of donated goods poses challenges for immigrant-aid agencies here and elsewhere. They weren’t built to process a tidal wave of heavy boxes and ballooning plastic bags.

HIAS and NSC work with partners who concentrate on accepting and organizing particular goods, including the Wardrobe, Cradles to Crayons, Our Closet, the Baby Bureau, and the Philadelphia Furniture Bank.

That specialization allows each group to do what it does best. And it means resettlement workers can contact specific partners to fulfill the needs of particular clients.

Not all clothes donated to Our Closet will go to Afghan evacuees. But all Afghan evacuees will get clothes from Our Closet.

“We’re trying to stay focused on resources for the families,” O’Sullivan said, “and what they need for a sustainable life.”