Early Saturday morning, the first of what are expected to be hundreds of evacuees began arriving in Philadelphia, the second airport in the nation designated by the White House to receive people fleeing the violence that has engulfed Afghanistan.
Many are being taken to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and some may have a stopover in Camden for processing, vetting, and respite. The South Jersey base now has a capacity for 3,500 evacuees, and received 1,192 Afghans since Wednesday, said U.S. Northern Command Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck.
The military hopes to expand the capacity there to 10,000, part of an effort to expand nationwide capacity to 50,000 by Sept. 15, VanHerck added.
The desperate mission to evacuate US citizens, Afghans who assisted NATO forces, government officials and others who could be in danger is rushing toward a chaotic conclusion in Kabul, as the last days tick away toward the Biden administration’s Aug. 31 decline.
U.S. forces carried out a drone strike against what they said was an ISIS-K planner in eastern Afghanistan amid warnings of possible further terror attacks targeting the American evacuation. France and Italy have concluded their airlifts, and CNN reported that the last UK military flight dedicated to civilian evacuees has left Kabul airport.
Friday, a day after a deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport and the threat of more attacks, officials in the Philadelphia region said that they would do everything possible to ensure a “safe haven” for the hundreds of evacuees from Afghanistan expected to arrive in the area this weekend.
It was unclear late Friday precisely when and how many evacuees would arrive at Philadelphia International Airport.
So far, planes carrying more than 8,500 evacuees have landed at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, a volume that has led to serious bottlenecks. But only hundreds were expected in Philadelphia early Saturday. The first glimpses of them were made inside and outside Terminal A-East just after 7 a.m.
Among several buses that waited to transport evacuees were two from West Chester-based Krapf Transportation. The digital message on the front of them read, “God Bless America.”
Resettling newcomers is likely to be difficult, and at the very least complicated, but Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy pledged support for the Philadelphia arrivals.
Murphy announced an Afghan refugee assistance task force, consisting of representatives of law enforcement and other state agencies.
U.S. citizens or those with valid visas will be free to go where they choose, but otherwise the evacuees will be taken eventually to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Typically, the newcomers get food, water, medical care, and a cot.
Air Force officials said the goal “is to provide safe haven and shelter.”
VanHerck and other officials stressed that the arrivals are being screened multiple times for the coronavirus. Out of 2,500 tested at two of the bases VanHerck visited this week, four had tested positive.
About 5,400 people are still awaiting departure from Afghanistan after 12,500 were transported out of the country Thursday, Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor said Friday. Philadelphia is one of 19 cities, identified by resettlement agencies, authorized to accept the evacuated.
Doctors at Jefferson University Hospital’s Center for Refugee Health are preparing for a large influx of new patients. Refugee admissions dropped during the Trump administration, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jefferson and Temple University Hospital physicians also were getting ready to conduct on-site services at the Philadelphia airport, said Jessica Deffler, a Jefferson family medicine physician and medical director at the Center for Refugee Health.
Clinical staff will also offer mental health services, she said. “We really don’t go too much into people’s full mental health history, because it’s a lot for a patient to come in and be asked so many questions about their physical health,” she said.
“We’re thinking the rate of PTSD will be high,” she added, “because of all the human rights violations happening — even before this takeover, the high rates of killing, torture, bombing.”
To accommodate the new arrivals, a city spokesperson said, volunteer translators would be welcome. Those who speak Pashto or Dari are asked to join the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps, a group of more than 2,500 volunteers who serve during public health emergencies and large-scale events. To sign up, visit https://serv.pa.gov and select “Philadelphia MRC.”
Resettling newcomers will confront hurdles. Unlike refugees, who hold legal status, some Afghans are being admitted under what’s called “humanitarian parole,” an emergency provision for those who don’t have legal permission to enter the United States.
More than 156,000 Afghans live in the United States, about 700 of them in Philadelphia, centered in Mayfair and Oxford Circle, two Northeast neighborhoods.
Local Afghans and supporters plan to rally on behalf of the embattled country at Philadelphia City Hall at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Flags will fly at half-staff across the region until sunset Monday to honor U.S. troops and civilians killed in the terrorist attack near the Kabul airport.
“The sacrifices of these service members, who continued to process refugees despite knowing that their lives were in imminent danger, will never be forgotten,” Murphy said in a statement.
“Many Afghans have spent years aiding U.S. forces and promoting democracy and equality,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said in a statement. “Philadelphia now plays a crucial part in welcoming these Afghans to the United States.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said Friday night that while Philadelphia had its own struggles, “there’s still always enough room to help take care of people in need.”
He said he didn’t know why Philadelphia was chosen, but added, “I feel honored to be part of this humanitarian effort. These folks have suffered greatly. They’re traumatized. ... We just want to have open arms and a welcoming atmosphere for them.”
Said City Councilmember Helen Gym, “Philadelphia’s heart is big enough for the entire world, and this proves it.”
Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith, Ellie Rushing, Rob Tornoe, and Aubrey Whelan, and photographer Elizabeth Robertson contributed to this article.