Hundreds of Afghans, arriving with the Christmas season, find refuge in San Antonio

Dec. 25—The morning was still young, five shopping days before Christmas, and Bilal, a recently arrived refugee from Afghanistan, was busy packaging gifts.

They weren’t traditional presents to be sealed in festive paper and ribbons. Bilal was sorting through blankets, towels and hygiene products, stuffing them in plastic trash bags at the Center for Refugee Services office on the Northwest Side.

He ran out of time and had to dash off to San Antonio International Airport to greet a man, his wife and five children. They, too, were from Afghanistan, full of worries and questions. One big issue: Would they be able to communicate?

“I talked with him in my language, Pashto. He just hugged me,” Bilal said afterward.

“He said, ‘In the airplane and the flight I was thinking, what should I do in the airport and who will help me? And I tell him, ‘We’re all here, and I’m translating for you and the other people are case workers.’ So he was very happy, the kids were very, very happy because after a long time they came out from camps. All of them, I saw smiles on their faces.”

Since the fall of Kabul in August, the Center for Refugee Services has helped more than 1,300 Afghans start new lives in San Antonio, its director, Margaret Costantino, said. As of mid-December, about 950 others had arrived with help from Catholic Charities and RAICES, and several dozen probably have come without any agency’s help, said Tino Gallegos, the city’s immigration liaison.

More will follow, at a pace that has reached up to 50 a day, said Costantino, whose organization is being helped by a thrown-together network of volunteer groups trying to gather basic supplies and furnishings for the new arrivals.

In all, the United States will absorb 74,000 Afghans, said Army Lt. Col. Christian Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman.. Some have spent months at American military bases since the frantic evacuation of Kabul. Nearly 48,000 already have arrived in their new communities across the nation as of Tuesday, he said.