From Fort Collins, Friends Worked To Help A Family Fleeing The Taliban In Afghanistan
From half a world away in Fort Collins, Kelsey Baun watched the headlines unfold in Afghanistan. Her job as an independent consultant in education reform and workforce strategy gives no hint that she’d be tracking events on the ground, day-by-day, ahead of the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 30.
“There was a Facebook post as soon as the Taliban started to take over more cities in Afghanistan,” Baun said.
The reason she was so riveted is friendship. She was following posts from Mahmod Shamsi. They were both students in Colorado State University’s MBA progam.
“He's a character,” Baun said, “somebody who could strike up a conversation with anyone.”
After he got his degree in 2018, Shamsi returned to Afghanistan, where he has a wife and two daughters.
“Afghanistan is his home,” Baun said.
As the Taliban marched into town after town in Afghanistan, Shamsi expressed fear online. He posted that he and his family were likely targets because of connections to an Afghan government that had quickly capitulated. On Aug. 16, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, reportedly with a helicopter full of cash.
Baun texted Shamsi and he told her that he feared that if the Taliban found him, they would kill him. Shamsi worried about the fate of his wife and his two daughters if that happened.
“He just said, ‘I’m desperate, anything that you can do to help,’” Baun said.
Shamsi was looking to get out of his homeland.
“This is where I get emotional, but I immediately hang up the phone and I just have this moment of like, if he's going to die, then I have to try everything I can,” Baun said.
So, she asked Shamsi what she could do. He sent personal documents, asked for help applying for visas, and wanted to know if there was any way to expedite them. Baun found herself getting a crash course in the confusing alphabet soup of U.S. visas — SIVs, P1s, P2s. She got in touch with mutual colleagues of hers and Shamsi’s at CSU. She asked friends in political circles for advice.
“They said the best step is to start a phone campaign, an email campaign, to just advocate to your senators,” she said.
Baun also set up a website for supporters, dubbing the effort “Mobilize for Mahmod.”
Thousands of people visited. Donations rolled in. Helpers rallied to the cause. Congressional aides for local lawmakers stepped up, including staffers for one of Colorado’s U.S. senators.
“Michael Bennet's office was giving me updates, like every hour just calling and saying, here's the status of it all,” Baun said.
Despite the efforts, Shamsi and his family remained in limbo, wondering if they would get out as President Biden’s deadline for withdrawal neared. Shamsi was told the Taliban had been knocking at his door. He went into hiding with one of his daughters. His wife went into hiding with their other daughter. He kept sending messages to his friends.
“Ultimately, right, he was casting a wide net to all of his contacts,” Baun said.
Then came a break: a ticket out of Afghanistan for his family as well as his sister, but not to the U.S. It was a humanitarian mission that would take him to Poland, and he had the paperwork to get his family onto an evacuation plane. Shamsi shaved his head and took off his glasses — hoping he wouldn’t be recognized on the streets, especially passing Taliban checkpoints — and reunited with his family.
Then they hit the bottleneck, stuck in the middle of huge crowds outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
“Of course, everything was just mad chaos,” Baun said.
Shamsi, speaking on Zoom to KUNC, said the chaos was disheartening. He was at the airport between two big headlines — days after desperate Afghans clinging to a C-17 fell from the military aircraft when it took off, and days before an ISIS-K suicide bombing left dozens dead, including 13 U.S. troops.
“The Taliban were in the crowd to calm the crowd or make them sit down or do whatever,” Shamsi said. “They would start firing or the British soldiers would start firing and the kids would scream.”
He thought he probably wasn’t going to get out. There was no way into the airport and the crowds at the gate were anxious, desperate, and unpredictable. At one point, Shamsi came up with a story, telling a Taliban guard that his daughter was sick and he needed to get onto a plane. That helped him get close enough to the gate to ask a British soldier to let the family in, but the soldier refused. A crowd later rushed at the gate. The family’s luggage was trampled and Shamsi worried the same might happen to his family.
“I was like, I'm not going to do this,” he said. “I'm not going to stay.”
His sister pleaded with him to hang on. So did Kelsey Baun in messages from Fort Collins. Baun had been speaking with U.S. officials, working to make them aware that Shamsi and his family had tickets and just needed to get into the airport.
So Shamsi just froze, waiting, hoping through the night, feeling intense pain in his back as the sun came up because he had been holding his daughter the entire time.
“Knowing that I will not be able to take my kids out and they would be living under Taliban rule was worse,” he said. “So I kept on standing. I never thought I could do that, but I did.”
Then a soldier opened the gate to the airport. Again the crowd swelled, this time like an ocean of people.
“Somehow we just decided that this is now or never and we pushed our way,” Shamsi said. “My kids were screaming and crying like hell. My wife was screaming and I had to pull her hand and she pulled my sister’s hand and I was holding one of my kids and trying to push our way and somehow we made it.”
Baun and Shamsi’s friends had been sleepless wondering what had happened. Then a photo of the family inside the airport came up on her phone.
“I think all of us just cried together,” Baun said.
As the plane left Kabul on Aug. 18 for Poland, Shamsi felt disheartened.
“I just cleansed my tears because I was leaving everything,” he said. “Everything we've worked for all these years.”
That included a private university that he and his family helped found a decade ago.
Shamsi and his family remain in Poland, staying at an Airbnb that’s being paid for with funds raised by Baun and Shamsi’s supporters. It’s not clear what will happen next. Shamsi joked that he might have to learn Polish and said that though he has traveled and studied in many places around the globe, he feels he has the most friends in Fort Collins. He said he’d like to return to the city and ride bikes with his kids. That seems a far-off dream, however, as he and Baun and others are working on the visa front, a process that could take a long time.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans were left behind, according to advocates. Several U.S. officials, including Gen. Frank McKenzie, have acknowledged the situation.
“We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a press conference Monday, announcing the last U.S. military flight had left Kabul.
“The rushed and chaotic nature of the evacuation effort could have been avoided, had the United States fulfilled its legal obligation to these allies prior to the withdrawal,” IRAP stated.
From Aug. 14 to Aug. 30, 123,000 people left the country in evacuations carried out by the U.S. and other countries, McKenzie said. Specific U.S. military evacuations included 6,000 Americans and 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghans, the general said. That last category included "Special Immigrant Visas, consular staff, at-risk Afghans” and families, he said.
Advocates for Afghans are asking for a more specific breakdown of the numbers.