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2022 LMS Essay Contest 3rd Place, Medical Student Category

It was a couple minutes after the first bomb went off that my view into medicine, into life, completely changed.

My father was deployed to Afghanistan for two years. He is a big personality and came to know many Afghan locals.  In August 2021, when the Afghan government fell, my father’s social media accounts received many messages as Afghans reached out to him in fear – seeking help as the Taliban blasted, beat, and murdered its way through the country.

For the last 8 months, I have worked as a Digital Dunkirk rescuer for my father’s Afghan interpreter, Samim, and his eight-member family. In a frantic attempt to help, my family quickly and unknowingly, became a working organ of the spontaneously developed Digital Dunkirk body – a rescue organization of US military members, stealthy Afghans on the ground, state department officials, congress members and staff, rapid response volunteers, and others – that sprang up in the digital world via WhatsApp and many other platforms. Digital Dunkirk worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end in a desperate rescue mission.

It started on my end simply enough. My mother communicated with Samim and I communicated with the evacuation groups that were quickly forming. My family also had contacts at the Hamad Kabul International Airport (HKIA). The guidance we received for Samim was – Go to the airport. Travel through the web of Taliban checkpoints. Get to the gate. Don’t look in the eyes of the Taliban you come across. Write your family name on cardboard. Wave your papers in the air. Get through the Taliban guards. Make it to the US guards. Show them your papers.  Now run…fast… and don’t give up.

My phone and my computer constantly rang with incoming information from Samim and from the exponential growth of the Digital Dunkirk network. Beyond my father, we didn’t know Samim, but we quickly developed a closeness that comes from the greatest fear, the most intense concern, life-or-death decisions – all occurring rapidly with my voice being a link to hope of survival for the family. I rapidly filled out dozens of spreadsheets of private family information, relayed identification cards and passports and other identifying information, and sent emails to Department of State and other officials.

Using several communication apps, I rapidly relayed critical information – such as the location of the fluidly moving Taliban checkpoints, locations of beatings and murders, and the position of the Americans we had alerted to Samim’s situation and status. Samim’s family was a prominent anti-Taliban, pro-democracy family and was well-known throughout Afghanistan. They were actively targeted by the Taliban. They beat his elderly father with the butt of a rifle. Despite the greatest of efforts by astoundingly brave individuals on the ground, the digital landscape buzzing with vital information, and days of constant and intermittent running and hiding, we had failed to get Samim’s family through the crowded, chaotic gate at HKIA.

We all spent several days of no sleep. I was tied to my computer watching CNN footage of the airport, communicating with Samim, and carefully watching the evacuation chats. On the morning of August 26th, I began to have a feeling of dread. I knew something wasn’t right. Samim and his family again attempted the gate. They were in the chaotic shuffling mass of desperate humanity.  They had suffered abuses. They were out of food and water. They had hidden their important documents in the burka of the women and had erased all signs of US contacts on their phone. We were in intermittent conversation…Then the bomb went off.

My mother’s friend who had been working with her own Afghan family lost contact with the Marines who had been helping her escort cleared Afghan individuals through the gate. Her Afghan family stopped responding to her messages. We later learned they all died. My aerial footage and chats with Afghans suddenly became flooded with indescribable images of broken, mangled, bloodied bodies. Many were children.

Samim was very close to the blast. But safe. Then another bomb. Again, safe. Then before we had another chance, the gate closed, the last American flight left Afghanistan, and new methods were required. Thus began 6 months of hiding, evading, and seeking new ways of escape.

From August to January, my family and our Afghan family worked every option to get them out of the country. I spent countless hours contacting senators, representatives, Immigration Services, Department of State, completing endless spreadsheets to qualify Samim and family for non-government rescue flights or extraordinarily expensive overland routes –  hours begging and pleading evacuation coalitions to help “our” family.

But at the same time, I was also a medical student. I slept about two hours each night. I received nearly constant information from the Digital Dunkirk network, I monitored events in Afghanistan, and I stayed alert to any opportunity.  Perhaps a flight would open.  Perhaps the Taliban were searching homes in Samim’s area.  Any number of events could mean the difference of life and death if not relayed rapidly and correctly to Samim. I refused to miss an opportunity for sleep, and I refused to put school on hold. Most days I could hardly walk due to exhaustion.

There was one constant in all this turmoil. The need for food, warmth, and medical care. Several coalitions banded together and found allies who could sneak food to those in hiding and found Afghan doctors who could provide care in secret. There was a medical specific chat. I listened as other Americans begged for help for their Afghan families with medical emergencies while in hiding. I felt powerless. As a second-year medical student, I wished desperately that I knew enough to join and help in those medical chats. My ache to become a physician grew enormously as I watched those in medical desperation.

I can’t describe all the narrow escapes. Once, Samim’s wife became very ill and sought the skills of a doctor. The Taliban threatened to kill her – calling her a prostitute for seeking medical care. Samim’s sister became extremely ill and again they risked everything to get her the care she needed. The family never left hiding except for medical care. Medical care was the only thing important enough to leave their hiding spot.

After months of begging, dead-ends, desperation and filling out countless papers requesting help, we got documented support from high-ranking government officials and politicians, and my parents and I were able to help our friends sneak out of the country. They escaped in two groups the last in late January.

I cannot describe the emotional impact this year has had on me or the resolve it has created in me. For the first time in my life, I struggled academically; but when I saw images of desperate people seeking medical help it powered me to continue studying. I kept a picture of Samim’s family on my phone so that I could stay motivated. I replayed the clip of his little child saying “Thank you so much. I love you” countless times. I have always wanted to be a physician in my mind, but this drove the desire to my heart.