A small number of refugees from Afghanistan, fleeing the country as the United States has ended its military presence there, have already been re-settled in Pennsylvania.
Organizations that are preparing to help place refugees in homes have been warned that larger numbers of families will be needing help by the middle of September, as the federal government processes some of the thousands of Afghans already in the country, being held on military bases.
Pennsylvania’s largest cities —Pittsburgh and Philadelphia —have been identified by the Department of State as suitable communities for Afghan refugees, but social agencies across the state have agreed to place refugees, so officials say it’s likely that smaller numbers of refugees could be resettled throughout the Commonwealth.
Groups in Philadelphia have placed six Afghan families and groups in Pittsburgh have already placed three families, officials with organizations coordinating resettlement efforts said Friday.
Many more refugees are likely on the way.
“We have welcomed three families so far and are ready for the arrival of additional families,” said Ivonne Smith-Tapia, refugee and immigrant services director for the Jewish Family and Community Services in Pittsburgh.
Smith-Tapia said JFCS is working with Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach, a refugee resettlement organization in Pittsburgh, along with 10 other agencies in the community to help the Afghan refugees when they arrive.
“Our most urgent need is finding appropriate housing. If you are a landlord and have a home available, please reach out and let us know,” she said.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, one of the agencies leading resettlement efforts in Philadelphia, said that once the Afghan refugees begin arriving, the process of placing them is going to play out over a prolonged period of time.
“I urge people to continue paying attention and supporting this because this is going to be a long road. This is not going to be over next week. This is going to begin really for Philadelphia, in about two weeks, and then it’s going to continue for a long, long time. and so we ask the people, you know, stay supportive, it’s really, really meaningful,” she said.
More than 8,000 Afghan refugees are being held at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and officials there say the base is preparing to hold up to 13,000 refugees. About 5,000 refugees are expected to be held at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, federal officials said. In all, about 20,000 refugees are being held on military bases, awaiting processing with thousands more overseas.
Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged that Pennsylvania will welcome Afghan refugees. The governor announced Wednesday that the Pennsylvania Air National Guard has been mobilized to assist in providing security and transportation assistance for refugees as they are moved around the country.
“Pennsylvania was founded on the ideals of peace, tolerance, and safety for all people. It is incumbent on us to model the ideals on which Pennsylvania was founded and be a welcoming home for any who seek safe refuge in the United States. Therefore, Pennsylvania stands ready to continue serving as a resource and a safe, welcoming home for those who seek refuge in the United States,” Wolf said.
The state Department of Human Services (DHS) has activated Pennsylvania’s state emergency repatriation plan as part of Operation Allies Refuge and established an Emergency Repatriation Center at the designated port of entry, Philadelphia International Airport, said Erin James, a DHS spokeswoman.
“Department staff are at the airport to provide support to U.S. citizens arriving from Afghanistan and to federal and local partner agencies. DHS is also coordinating an operation to provide meals, including Halal meals, to any arriving individuals in need,” she said. The state won’t be directly involved in placing refugees and instead will rely on humanitarian groups to find homes for the refugees.
“In its role, DHS helps to provide access to high-quality employment, medical and mental health screening, support services, and case management for up to 60 months post-arrival. DHS does not have decision-making authority on who or how many refugees will be resettled in PA. That decision is made by the federal government,” James said.
Refugees arriving in the U.S. landed at Philadelphia International Airport and at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. The refugees were tested for COVID-19 and then immediately transferred to the military bases where they will be held until they are approved for resettlement.
Local officials said they haven’t been told how many refugees to expect, but that they’ve notified that the first groups of refugees that will be resettled in the community are likely to begin arriving by the middle of September, said Miller-Wilson.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Miller-Wilson said, when asked if her agency has been given notice of how many refugees to expect. “The answer is no.”
If possible, refugees will be moved into communities where they have existing family connections, Miller-Wilson said.
“There’s an Afghan community in Philly, that’s about 700 strong, okay. and there are many people in the military bases who are connected to those folks. So if they are connected, they’ll probably end up in Philly. But the largest community of Afghans is in California and Texas. So, therefore, there are many more ties to those people,” she said.
Officials in Pittsburgh estimate that the Afghan community there consists of about 200 people, according to JFCS.
Refugees who don’t have family connections can be re-settled pretty much anywhere though.
“In fact, there are 19 resettlement agencies in Pennsylvania, and they’ve all stepped up and said, we’re willing to take people. So I think beyond Philly and Pittsburgh, there will be growing Afghan communities in Pennsylvania and other places. But they will probably be lower down in the priority list because part of refugee resettlement involves resettling people in a community, nobody wants to be the first and only Afghan family in a location,” Miller-Wilson said.
Miller-Wilson said that it’s difficult to prepare to help place refugees without having more information about how many are coming. Those efforts have been complicated by the fact there is tremendous demand for available apartments which drives up the cost of rent.