A race to freedom and safety
As the Taliban rolled through Afghanistan while the United States commenced its withdrawal, many Afghanis faced a precarious future.
Because of that, a pair of 1992 Canby High School graduates, one a military contractor, the other a "bird" colonel in the U.S. Air Force, decided to cut through the red tape and save some lives. With the Taliban quickly gaining control of the country, Chris Crum was asked for help from an old Afghan friend, then enlisted the help of Canby High School classmate Ken Pedersen to make it happen — and a little bit of magic occurred amid a nightmare.
An Afghan named Shakaib and his brother had been used as interpreters by Crum during his multiple tours in Afghanistan. A couple of years ago, the brothers were able to get to the United States and gain citizenship. However, in doing so, they left many of their family members behind. As the Taliban threat mounted in recent weeks and fear of reprisals for those who had helped the United States grew, Shakaib reconnected with Crum, who is currently working out of Florida, via LinkedIn. In the course of catching up, Shakaib noted that he'd gotten married and his wife was still in Afghanistan. And with tensions mounting, he'd like to get her out.Â
"Shakaib and I reconnected, and he was catching me up on everything," Crum said. "His wife was stuck over there, he had two brothers and two sisters, and they each had families. He asked if I could help.
"His wife was the first priority, so she made the first attempt to get out, but (Shakaib) basically felt no one would get out."
As tensions mounted, an attempt to get the wife out of Afghanistan was launched. The evening of Aug. 17 through the next morning proved to be a whirlwind of planning and changing plans on the run, as Crum and Pederson, who is stationed in Qatar, organized a successful escape via long distance.
"I knew Ken runs all the air assets in that part of the world," Crum explained. "I reached out to him. Does he know anyone to direct my friend's wife to? I got all the stuff from Shakaib and forwarded it to Ken, who forwarded it to his guys in Kabul. The wife made the attempt and had to dodge Taliban checkpoints and patrols, but she got through. Hers turned out to be fairly easy."
With Shakaib's wife in the clear, the race was on to get other family members out even as the Taliban applied more pressure. In all, 20 relatives would make a break for freedom via Crum and Pederson's efforts.Â
In the wee hours of Aug. 18, an attempt to get more of Shakaib's family out got underway. Through his contacts, Crum and Pedersen let the family know Shakaib's wife had gotten through. Now, it was their turn.
"They (the family) literally dropped everything at 4 a.m. and had to go on foot to the gate we had vectored them toward," Crum said. "They took nothing with them, except maybe a couple of diapers. It was a pretty big leap of faith. They had to dodge Taliban patrols, but finally made it to the gate."
But they weren't safe quite yet. While in line at the gate, Crum said the Taliban showed up and started pushing, shoving and intimidating those seeking asylum.Â
"Ken tells me to tell them to stick together and push to the front of the line. They needed to get to the front," Crum explained. "They got there and finally got past our (82nd Airborne) soldiers and were safe. Except the screener at the gate denies them and spits them out the exit gate. They thought they were going to have to go home, but Ken tells them not to leave. He had some soldiers on the way to escort them. So they were behind our soldiers, but not in — kind of in this no-man's land until the soldiers arrived."
It turns out, stealth, desire and no small amount of guts got the family into the care of U.S. military. Once moved to safety in Qatar, the family was split into three groups for processing, but they were in the system, and that was the goal. Currently, some are already in the United States, with others slowly following behind.
"I'm feeling pretty good about that one," Crum said. "This was not an official thing, just veterans trying to be their brother's keeper — that's the best way I can describe it. It's just heartbreaking what's going on, all these people we have worked with being left. In fact, Ken and I are trying to get another group out right now.
"Poor Ken, he's got a lot to deal with between Afghanistan and Iraq, but I think Ken kind of needed to do this for this one family," Crum said. "I think he needed that for himself."
Crum had previously served in the U.S. Navy and Air Force after high school, but his three deployments in Afghanistan and three more in Iraq have been as a military contractor, focusing on intelligence. Pederson continues to help support ongoing operations in the country.
A helping hand
With Shakaib and his family now in a safe environment, Chris Crum and Ken Pedersen are hoping to offer help to their family and other refugees
"Through all the tragedy and sadness, our friend Shakaib's family reminds us of the good that has come from this," Chris Crum said. "We've set up a GoFundMe to help get his family get started here. Our intent it to meet what Shakaib feels is sufficient to get his 20 or so family members on their feet, then continue giving to existing organizations that are helping Afghan refugees."
To help, go online (gofundme.com/f/help-afghan-families-start-over-in-the-us).
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