New York — At Kennedy Airport, bearded Afghans come off the plane in tattered garments. They carry shopping bags holding all their worldly belongings. Under the tall Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, at the foot of the windswept Statue of Liberty, or in the seemingly endless maze of Brooklyn streets they mingle, usually without speaking, with Poles, Slavs, Ukrainians, Chinese, and Jews.
But while their languages and customs may be worlds apart, many of these immigrants are sharing a speechless prayer of gratitude to be here in the immigrant gateway to America.
Many of New York's problems with transportation, crime, or the high cost of living pale in comparison to what these immigrants may have left behind - especially the growing number of Polish, Afghan, and Soviet refugees seeking political asylum and freedom from fear and want.
At a time, when overall tourism is down in the ''Big Apple,'' the number of visitors to the Statue of Liberty is soaring. As of November, 1,739,935 people had visited ''the Lady of Light,'' as she is sometimes called, some 40,000 more than all of last year and more than 100,000 than all of 1979.
Part of that increase, says National Park Service spokesperson Holly Bundock, can be traced to new immigrants who want to see the immigrant museum at the base of the statue or Ellis Island, located next to Liberty Island.
Ellis Island, the ''Island of Tears,'' as some called it, was the first - and sometimes last - stop in America for 12 million immigrants who came by ship from 1895 to 1925.
Today, airplane is the most frequent mode of travel for legal immigrants and refugees heading for the US. Most, like those coming from Afganistan via Pakistan, India, and other countries, don't have enough money for the plane ticket. So the US State Department picks up the tab, eliciting a promise from the refugees to pay the government back when they are able.
The World Relief Corporation, which has a contract with the State Department to help place refugees, has found homes for as many as 30,000 in the past two years and has helped settle 30 Afghans in New York City in the past year-and-a-half. Nationwide, World Relief helped locate about 250 Afghans. Though the borough of Brooklyn is a strange world to most of them - far from snow-capped mountains and lush valleys of their homeland - part of their new-found happiness, says World Relief regional coordinator Stephen Copple, is in the abundance they find all around them here.
Some refugees speak of their gratitude with great erudition mingled with declarations of contempt for their former ''captors.'' Lisa Alexeyeva, the daughter-in-law of Soviet dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov, said here recently, ''I am very happy that I am here. . . . I hope my case will draw attention to the fact that there are thousands of people unable to be reunited with their family and friends. . . .''
Others, such as the Afghans, speak haltingly and through interpreters of their feelings of relief and joy. They say they cannot put into the proper words - even if they could speak English - their delight to be here.