‘Nothing short of a miracle’
How the CSU network helped an alum evacuate from Afghanistan
story by Allison Sylte
published Sept. 17, 2021
Mahmod Shamsi poses for a photo with his wife and two young daughters.
What began as a conversation between Kat Ernst and former student Mahmod Shamsi about potential job opportunities in Fort Collins turned into an international bid to save his and his family’s lives.
“In early August, Mahmod started messaging me that he was looking to relocate his family because the situation in Afghanistan was getting unstable,” said Ernst, who is the director of the Impact MBA program at Colorado State University. “On Aug. 11, we were still going back and forth about his job applications and resume.
“Four days later, he made a desperate post on social media saying the embassies are closed, we’re stuck in Kabul, can anybody help?”
The 2018 Impact MBA graduate later messaged Ernst and said the Taliban were targeting his family and they had gone into hiding. He wrote about what happened on Facebook, and that mobilized a network of CSU alums who began to fundraise, scour their networks and contact Colorado’s members of Congress in hopes of evacuating Shamsi and his family from the rapidly deteriorating situation in his homeland.
“Everything happened so quickly,” Shamsi said. “One can say that the 20-year international effort to infuse western and liberal values for our generation collapsed in one week, taking the hopes and dreams of the young generation with it.”
Shamsi, his wife and two young daughters are now rebuilding their lives in Poland. After four days of waiting among the increasingly frantic crowd at the airport, they were able to leave Afghanistan with just the clothes on their backs.
And even that was hardly a given.
‘Running to leave a cursed land’
Shamsi’s hometown in Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif, was invaded by the Taliban on Aug. 14. He and his two-year-old daughter had visas that enabled them to leave, but his wife and eight-month-old did not and stayed with his sister.
“With much horror and pain, we made our way to the airport, where thousands were waiting to leave the country,” Shamsi said. “All the airport crew, including pilots, had run away, leaving no one to administer the operations of the airport.
“The chaos was so intense yet silent, as if running to leave a cursed land before the day gets dark.”
After 12 hours of waiting, it did get dark, and Shamsi and his daughter got into a friend’s car in the dead of night while the Taliban fired shots at the airport. Shamsi and his daughter hid with a friend, and he shaved his head to disguise himself.
Mahmod Shamsi with his wife, who was a gynecology and obstetrics surgeon in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile in Fort Collins, Ernst and Shamsi’s classmates sprang into action.
“We were sitting in a conference room here all day, calling everyone we could think of with a connection to Afghanistan,” Ernst said. “I mean, I called my brother-in-law. I called a random person I knew 10 years ago. We called random people we didn’t know who I heard through the grapevine.”
Kelsey Baun, who graduated from the MBA program a year after Shamsi, helped build a website to rally people behind the cause and fundraise for the family.
“Within the first three days, it had 2,000 views,” she said.
“It was pretty organic, I would say,” fellow Impact MBA graduate Kelly Haugen said. “A group of friends wanting to help out.”
There were daily Zoom calls about the continuing effort to save Shamsi’s life.
People also began to call Rep. Joe Neguse and Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, begging them to use their influence to get Shamsi and his family seats on one of the planes that was evacuating refugees from Kabul.
A friend of Shamsi’s from Poland was finally able to get his family spots on a flight that was leaving Kabul on Aug. 18, but the more daunting challenge would be getting into the airport at all.
‘It certainly felt like nothing short of a miracle at the time’
Shamsi and his family had another brush with death when they joined the crowd that had gathered outside of the Kabul airport waiting to be evacuated.
“A Taliban soldier shot a bullet that accidentally hit two feet away from me and my daughter, who had fallen asleep in my hands,” he said. “She woke up in shock.”
Ernst remembers receiving bulletins like these throughout a two-day period.
“He was sending us these real-time updates, photos of the Taliban outside their car,” she said. “He brought his family back to the airport, and they lost all their luggage because there were gunshots
“They were exposed, without food or water, with screaming children, in a crowd of thousands, with Taliban all around them, waiting for a random Polish man to call their names and open the gate. It seemed impossible.”
“He had no idea what to do, and was pleading with us to get somebody to call his name from inside the airport.”
Shamsi said he was growing increasingly despondent.
“I was willing to accept the life of hiding and misery instead of any more endangering my family’s life at the airport,” he said.
“They were exposed, without food or water, with screaming children, in a crowd of thousands, with Taliban all around them, waiting for a random Polish man to call their names and open the gate,” Ernst said. “It seemed impossible.”
But, Ernst and the other people around the world who love Shamsi didn’t give up. She called every military-connected alum she knew. One answered the phone, and while he wasn’t on the ground in Afghanistan, he said he’d call people who were.
“About a half hour later, right as Mahmod himself was messaging us to tell us he was inside the gate, the alum messaged me to tell me the same thing,” Ernst said. “I asked what he did, and he said nothing. But I believe 100% that not only did Mahmod’s Polish friend save him by getting him spots on that flight, but our alum saved him by somehow getting the Brits to open the gate for them.
“It certainly felt like nothing short of a miracle at the time.”
Erica Tardiff, another Impact MBA alum, was the liaison between the people in Colorado and Shamsi’s wife. She too recalls the moment where it seemed like they had finally succeeded in evacuating their friend after hours of uncertainty.
“I got to announce to the group that they got through the gate, and it was a moment of relief,” she said.
“I cried, I don’t really cry that often, but I cried,” Haugen said.
“It was one of the most emotional moments of my life,” Baun said.
‘They helped me rise from a hopeless homeless person in danger to where I am today’
Shamsi and his family will never recover the car they left on the streets of Kabul when they went to the airport. With their luggage left behind in the chaos, they arrived in Poland with just the clothes on their backs and a community of friends and strangers eager to help.
“All these people from around the world gave me hope, gave me reason and belief to fight,” Shamsi said. “They helped me rise from a hopeless homeless person in danger to where I am today.”
A GoFundMe for his family has raised more than $34,000, and after celebrating his birthday by being released from quarantine in Poland, Shamsi and his family have settled into an apartment in Krakow.
Shamsi said he would love to come back to Fort Collins and CSU if at all possible. His wife, who was a gynecology & obstetrics surgeon in Afghanistan, will have to start her training all over again when they settle in a new country.
Mahmod Shamsi rides his bike in Fort Collins.
“Help any Afghan you can, because we may have lost our home and hopes and have to start from scratch, but we come with our determination, education, diversity and skill to find a new home and learn to dream again,” Shamsi said.
And as for Baun, Tardiff and Haugen? They’re now hoping to share the lessons they learned in evacuating Shamsi with others who want to help those in similar situations. They put together a Google Doc with everything they’ve learned.
Ernst said she’s breathing a sigh of relief now that she knows Shamsi is safe. It came after a stressful four days that was filled with countless phone calls and meetings and attempts to find someone, anyone, who could help Shamsi.
“We had no idea what we were doing, we’re not evacuation people, we are higher education administrators,” Ernst said. “My experience is in what he was originally messaging us about, ‘look at my resume, here’s a job posting you might like.’
“Not, ‘how do you resettle your family in a totally different country having left everything behind?’ Nothing about this is normal for us.”