💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Philadelphia International Airport has now welcomed more than 25,000 people evacuated by the U.S. military from Afghanistan. Many of them — perhaps close to half — are children.
Of more than 50,000 Afghan evacuees who’d been brought to the United States as of two weeks ago, about 44% are kids, according to a letter obtained by the Wall Street Journal from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe.
Local officials don’t appear to be keeping track of the demographics of the evacuees coming through what’s being called Operation Allies Welcome. The city posts only aggregated totals, and spokesperson Irene Contreras-Reyes referred Billy Penn to the feds for more detailed answers. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security haven’t yet responded.
But having a large number of children as part of the Philadelphia group would not be surprising: More than 41% of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 14, according to U.N. stats. For comparison, that stat is 18% for the United States.
And photos of operations at Philly’s airport provided by officials show dozens of kids coming through — along with activities that’ve been set up for them, from soccer to arts and crafts provided by Mural Arts..
The effort has required major coordination between many different government and nonprofit partners at the local, state, and federal level, said officials who gathered at PHL Airport last week to mark the 25,000th evacuee milestone.
“It’s difficult for us to start naming names,” said Adam Thiel, director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. “It really included the Red Cross greeting these children with teddy bears as they got off, the Salvation Army with a cup of tea, the office of Immigrant Affairs somehow made interpreters appear seemingly out of nowhere … our dedicated EMS providers transported folks to the hospitals … and so many others.”
Most people evacuated through Philly are bused to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, where thousands of adults and children are still temporarily living.
Plans call for them to be resettled across the country, with only about 300 expected to stay in Philadelphia proper, according to The Inquirer.
The evacuation began at the end of August in the wake of the U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan. PHL was the second airport designated by the White House to receive evacuees, after Dulles in Virginia.
Children were included in the evacuees from the start, including some unaccompanied minors.
At PHL Airport, the welcoming center is set up in Terminal A, and has included:
- Translation in Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and Farsi
- Culturally appropriate food
- Comfort items like stuffed animals
- Diapers and hygiene products
- General medical examinations
- Mental health support services
- Free COVID vaccines
- An escort while they pick up luggage
- Transportation to their next destination
At the press conference last week, airport CEO Chellie Cameron talked about how proud she is of the effort.
“We are Philly, and when things get rough, we shine,” Cameron said. “And it’s a real honor and pleasure to be able to say that in front of all of you today. Thank you for your support.”
Unlike the first few weeks of the operation, when thousands of evacuees were streaming through PHL each week, the pace has slowed, but there are still flights arriving that carry hundreds of Afghan adults and children.
If you want to help, the best way at this time is to donate funds, according to local organizations that work with recent immigrants.
Philly’s Nationalities Service Center is still accepting donations to its Transforming Welcoming Fund, which is being used to furnish houses and apartments, cover rent payments, offset grocery costs, and buy public transit cards. HIAS Pennsylvania also accepts donations to ensure Afghan immigrants and evacuees have somewhere safe to turn.
Scroll down for more photos of the kids coming through PHL on their way to a new life in the U.S.