PHILADELPHIA - The City of Philadelphia says they have reached a major milestone this week: 25,000 Afghan evacuees have come through Philly International Airport.
The milestone comes two months after Operation Allies Welcome began.
"Welcome to Philadelphia, you belong here and we’re happy that you are here," says Mayor Jim Kenney.
Mayor Kenney joined airport and other city leaders Friday for an update on the operation, which has slowed to about one flight a day and is expected to wrap up in a few weeks.
They reflected on the dozens of city agencies, non-profit groups and volunteers that came together in hours to make sure evacuees felt welcome, and to provide extensive security and healthcare screenings, COVID-19 testing and an option to get the vaccine, among other services
Philadelphia International Airport was one of two across the country selected for the operation. For the second wave of the mission, since early October, they have been the only airport.
Evacuees are taken to one of eight safe havens, which are U.S. military bases across the country, and then they start the resettlement process.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, says that has not come without challenges.
"We are given no notice. Under normal circumstances, we get about 10 days notice which we use to line up housing," she says.
Among the logistical challenges, Miller-Wilson says they had to use their own funding to set-up hotel rooms for Afghan evacuees before moving them into permanent housing. Fortunately, she says hotel rooms are giving lower rates and Airbnb is providing free housing.
She says there are also psychological challenges, including really tragic family separations.
Over the past week alone they worked with a family that arrived without their 2-year-old child and a man who arrived alone without his pregnant wife and three children.
"That’s really been a challenge to try to get people integrated when all they want is to be reunited with their family," Miller-Wilson says.
HIAS Pennsylvania has assisted in resettling 28 people over the past few weeks and anticipate many more in the near future.
They are urging congress to do something for the people left behind.
"Everything we’ve heard is that there is nothing in Afghanistan, no movement to get people out."