In its 100-year history, Nationalities Service Center may never have been busier than it is now.
It has pledged to resettle 500 Afghans in Philadelphia, about a third of the state commitment — 275 of whom are living at the Marriott Residence Inn in Center City, where the agency has turned part of the second floor into a kind of American Orientation U.
English class is held in the morning, job preparation in the afternoon, then two sessions of information on housing, one in Dari, the other in Pashto. In between, the agency organizes road trips for people to check out apartments and schools in the Northeast, South Philadelphia, King of Prussia, and the Main Line.
“Like the people we serve, we’re resilient,” said NSC executive director Margaret O’Sullivan.
At the century mark, the immigrant-assistance agency is looking back — and forward.
NSC is opening a branch office next year in what is fast becoming one of the city’s more diverse areas, Northeast Philadelphia, to meet immigrants where they live.
The Northeast has become home to newcomers from China, Brazil, Portugal, Russia, and the Dominican Republic. It’s also the center of the city’s growing, 700-member Afghan community, concentrated in the Mayfair and Oxford Circle areas.
NSC embraced a new motto, “We stand with immigrants,” and a new, woven-style logo, to symbolize immigrants and their new communities meshing as one. The agency also started a centennial fund-raising drive.
“It’s a special year we’re entering,” said incoming board of trustees chairperson Brian Kim, who is a principal at NewSpring Capital, a Radnor investment firm. “It’s a combination of reflecting on the past, assessing the present, and positioning the organization for the future.”
NSC was founded as the International Institute of Philadelphia, part of an early-20th-century movement that established “International Institutes” in 55 cities. It worked to help immigrant women gain citizenship and learn English, and provided both recreation and help finding jobs and housing.
As millions of people were displaced during World War II, the institute expanded its work to include legal services and began helping not just women but their families as well. It changed its name in 1964. And in the 1970s it worked to resettle Southeast Asian families amid the diaspora that followed the end of the Vietnam War.
Today NSC serves about 5,000 immigrants and refugees a year from more than a hundred countries, including Bhutan, Iraq, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They speak about 75 languages.
The goal is to help newcomers establish solid, sustainable, and dignified futures by providing comprehensive services. That includes legal aid, language instruction, health care, job assistance, and overall guidance in transitioning to a new country.
Located near 12th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, NSC took in and spent about $6 million in 2019, according to its most recent public tax filing. Most of its income derives from contributions and grants.
Clients are served regardless of legal status or ability to pay.
That includes the Afghans evacuated to the United States amid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Some 50,000 are living on eight U.S. military bases, including 11,100 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, waiting to be permanently settled in communities across the country.
The Biden administration wants to get people off the bases as soon as possible, but finding affordable housing has been a challenge. Hotels have emerged as a stopgap.
On Monday, Ghulam Sakhi Danish walked the Marriott halls holding his 2-month-old daughter, Eliana — born at Camp Atterbury in Indiana — while his wife, Najia Haidari, took part in a jobs-skills class.
“They’ve been really great — they give us all the information we need,” Danish said of NSC. “We’re really hopeful of a good future.”
NSC deputy director Steven Larín, who initially joined the agency as a staff immigration attorney, said the agency’s work exerts lasting impact. Helping a family stay and live in the United States changes not just their future but those of all succeeding generations.
“Let’s see what we can do next,” said Nan Feyler, the board chairperson and a former NSC executive director. “It’s a chance to look forward, to help people really thrive, to be partners with people who arrive in this country hoping to rebuild their lives.”
Today about 230,000 Philadelphians are foreign-born. More than a quarter of city residents are immigrants or have a foreign-born parent.
If not for NSC, said former City Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante, he wouldn’t be in Philadelphia.
It was NSC that resettled his family from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1983. Tulante was 8, the eldest of three siblings, his mother nine months pregnant, his father newly freed from detention as a political prisoner.
Granted asylum in the United States, the family traveled 7,000 miles from Kinshasa to a city they didn’t know.
“An NSC person met us at the airport, at JFK, drove us across the Ben Franklin Bridge,” Tulante said. “The sense of kindness and reassurance that he provided a stranger always formed my view of America in a way. The first American I ever met.”
As an adult, Tulante, an attorney at Dechert LLP and a former NSC board member, retained what he’s called an immigrant’s “indescribable blend of wonder, trepidation, and anticipation.”
Now, he noted, Afghans face the same challenge — at the end of a tumultuous four-year turn when the Trump administration cut the admission of refugees to historic lows.
The number of Afghans to be resettled in Philadelphia has grown, with Bethany Christian Services to resettle 65, Catholic Social Services 75, HIAS Pennsylvania 100,, and NSC 500, bringing the city total to 740.
“This is our moment,” O’Sullivan said. “This is our moment as an organization to stand up — the opportunity to show what our organization can do.”