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, the director of the Impact MBA program in the College of Business 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.
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, 2021. 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, 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.
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 of through the grapevine.”
Kelsey Baun, who graduated from the MBA program a year after Shamsi, helped build a website to fundraise for the family; it received more than 2,000 views in three days.
People also began to call U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and Sens. 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.
“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.”
‘Nothing short of a miracle‘
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.”