As a desperate U.S. rescue mission in Afghanistan rushes toward a chaotic end, more than 200 evacuees arrived Saturday at Philadelphia International Airport, the second airport designated by the White House to receive people fleeing the violence that has engulfed their country.
The first of what city officials expect will be hundreds of Afghan evacuees arriving in the coming days landed in Philadelphia before dawn, with more expected in the evening.
Once off the planes and through customs, they were greeted by an interpreter and led through Terminal A-East Baggage Claim and a processing area dubbed “Operation Allies Refuge-PHL,” where culturally appropriate food, hygiene products, medical evaluation, COVID-19 testing and vaccination, and other support — including stuffed animals for the children — were offered, a city spokesperson said. Space for religious observation is also available.
Several buses awaited them, including some from West Chester-based Krapf Transportation, whose digital signs read, “God Bless America.” Many of the new arrivals were headed to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Wrightstown, with some expected to have a stopover in Camden for processing, vetting, and respite.
As the evacuees were being processed at the airport, about 100 people gathered under overcast skies Saturday morning in Center City for an emotional rally and march to support them and those still in Afghanistan.
“The world is watching right now,” said Michelle Li, 24, of Philadelphia. “We have a responsibility.”
The mission to evacuate U.S. citizens, Afghans who assisted NATO forces, government officials, and others who could be in danger is up against a Tuesday deadline set by the Biden administration as conditions in Kabul grow ever more desperate.
After Thursday’s suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 Americans and dozens of Afghans, authorities announced Saturday that U.S. forces carried out a drone strike Friday 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 U.K. military flight dedicated to civilian evacuees had left the Kabul airport.
At the rally on Philadelphia’s Dilworth Plaza that culminated with a march down the Parkway to the Art Museum, there were tears, prayers, and emotional pleas for the United States to extend its withdrawal deadline and get as many people out as possible.
“We owe it to them. It’s the right thing to do,” said Brian Doyle, 24, of Cherry Hill, a second-year student at Rutgers-Camden Law School, who held up a sign that read, “Asylum is a human right.”
The rally was organized by AOPxSola, which represents the Afghan community in Philadelphia. It said it wanted to show solidarity and demand that the United States continue evacuations and lift quota and visa restrictions.
The crowd included families who brought their young children and Afghan women who expressed concern for women left in their homeland. Some waved the Afghan flag and carried signs that read, “I speak for those who can’t” or “Don’t break your promise.”
Aimal Safi, 10, of Philadelphia, said he came to the rally “to save Afghan lives.” His family came from Kabul about five years ago. They are hoping a brother and sister-in-law there are able to flee, he said.
“I’m here to stand up for Afghanistan,” said Aimal, a fifth grader.
Mobina Noory held a sign expressing her feelings: “Afghan Lives Matter.” Noory, 28, a physician assistant from Bensalem, left Afghanistan when she was 10, but her extended family remains there and she believes they could be targeted by the Taliban.
“They’re probably going to kill all of them,” Noory said.
City Councilmember Helen Gym, the daughter of immigrants, stirred the crowd with a reading from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
“This is about humanity,” said Gym. “This is about our country.”
Mursal Ghafary, 14, of Bensalem, said she was worried about her 23-year-old sister-in-law who is trying to leave Afghanistan. She said she watched with horror as children desperate to flee fell to their deaths from American airplanes taking off from the airport in Kabul.
“I’m scared for my family there,” Ghafary said. “I want people to know that this is happening.”
With anger and tears, Khatira Nasiri, of Philadelphia, who came to the United States from Kabul in 2002, read a poem in her native dialect about the plight of Afghan women. A registered nurse at Jefferson University Hospital, she said female relatives back home have been unable to attend school or go outside without coverings.
“They can do nothing,” Nasiri said. “It’s just heartbreaking what’s going on.”
Nasiri translated the last line of her verse: “You ruined my country! You ruined my country! You ruined my country!”
After the speeches, the crowd, with a police escort, marched through the streets past LOVE Park toward the Art Museum. They clenched their fists and chanted, “Free, free Afghanistan” and “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.” Tourists looked on and motorists honked their horns.
As a steady rain fell, they lined up on the museum steps for more speeches. A young girl held up a sign penned in a child’s handwriting with a purple heart that said simply, “Pray for Afghans.”
Fatima Hussaine, 22, of Philadelphia, bowed her head and placed her hand over her heart as the Afghan national anthem played on a loudspeaker. She came to the United States five years ago with two sisters.
“It’s very sad,” said her sister Zahara Hussaine, 23.
Staff writer Diane Mastrull and photographer Elizabeth Robertson contributed to this article.