Philadelphia International Airport has received its 25,000th evacuee from Afghanistan, highlighting its role as a main arrival and welcome point for the largest resettlement effort since the end of the Vietnam War.
“Welcome to Philadelphia,” Mayor Jim Kenney said during a Friday news conference at the airport, speaking to those on their way and those already here. “You belong here. We’re happy you’re here.”
Precisely 25,536 people have landed in Philadelphia as of Friday, most of whom have been bused from the airport to temporary living quarters at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey. Others have gone to seven other military installations being used as “safe havens,” from where they’ll be resettled in communities across the country.
Flights into Philadelphia have slowed significantly in the past couple weeks, down from five or six a day to one or two. Flights now are averaging about one a day, delivering about 400 evacuees daily, and officials say they expect that pace to continue. One flight was expected on Friday.
Mayor Kenney, Transportation Security Administration security director Gerardo Spero, and U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon joined with some 60 other elected and appointed leaders, volunteers, soldiers, city workers, and private-agency heads to mark the milestone and the city’s role in the evacuation at International Arrivals Hall.
“Together we’ve made history,” Spero told the crowd.
Government officials said the mission has gone smoothly overall, and credited broad cooperation among agencies and people. “The City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love has really lived up to its name,” Scanlon said.
The flights that are landing in Philadelphia come from first-stop, emergency evacuation centers in Germany, Bahrain, Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. The numbers of arrivals have dropped as more and more people have left those centers.
About 1,500 evacuees needed medical attention on arrival for everything from severe diaper rash to diabetes to gunshot wounds. In September a 9-month-old girl died soon after landing in Philadelphia. Health officials declined to reveal the cause of death on Friday.
Today an estimated 11,200 evacuees are living at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, according to CBS News, the second-highest total behind only Fort McCoy in Wisconsin at 11,900.
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On the South Jersey base, everyone asks the same two questions: When am I leaving? And where will I go?
So far the numbers for evacuees moving off the base have been narrow, hampered by the need for immigration approvals and a tight housing market.
Philadelphia resettlement agencies reported 46 people had been moved to new homes as of Sept. 30, with more in the pipeline. Pennsylvania plans to ultimately resettle 995 people, New Jersey 535, and Delaware 30.
Today about 53,000 Afghans are living on eight U.S. military installations across the nation. 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.
Several cases of measles among evacuees in the United States brought flights to a temporary stop on Sept. 11, and led the U.S. to undertake a massive health campaign that vaccinated more than 49,000 people at military installations in the United States and at staging areas in Europe and the Middle East.
Since Aug. 17, about 9,000 people have moved off of the military bases and settled in American communities, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Of those, 6,000 were placed by resettlement agencies. The rest were U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, or holders of Special Immigrant Visas, or were Afghans with close ties in the United States who did not need the support available on the bases.
The government says it wants to move people to permanent homes “as soon as possible,” though the timing depends on many factors, including the administration of work authorizations.
Most Afghans arriving in America are not strictly refugees, despite how they’re described. And that could be a big problem for them.
With cold weather arriving, Homeland Security officials say they’re working with other agencies to ensure that Afghan evacuees on the bases stay warm.
At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which sprawls across Burlington and Ocean Counties, temporary housing is being winterized with hard, insulated walls to improve heat retention.
The base also is preparing emergency generators to ensure the heat stays on, and improving walking paths to aid snow removal. Afghan residents there will receive cold-weather coats, boots, caps, gloves, and sweaters.
Only 300 Afghans are expected to stay permanently in Philadelphia, though that figure could rise if the federal government puts more money and resources into housing, food, and medical care.
The city’s Afghan community currently consists of about 700 people, most of whom live in Northeast Philadelphia in the Mayfair and Oxford Circle neighborhoods. Agencies hope to resettle newcomers there, where they’ll have help in transitioning to American life.
(c) 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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