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Tampa group evacuates 23 people left in Afghanistan when Biden withdrew troops

They were Americans and lawful permanent residents.

TAMPA, Fla. — Four U.S. citizens and 19 permanent residents landed safely on American soil this past weekend as part of a successful privately-organized evacuation from Afghanistan.

The group behind the mission is based right here in Tampa.

It was quite the journey. The evacuees flew from Kabul, making stops in the United Arab Emirates and Italy, before landing at 7 p.m. Saturday at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Their evacuation was made possible by the Tampa-based nonprofit Project DYNAMO. The organization works to help Americans, vulnerable Afghans and our allies who were stuck behind when the U.S. military left and the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

Two combat veterans, Bryan Stern and Abdul Wasit, led the evacuation effort. Eleven of the people they rescued were children, some as young as 4 years old.

"After rendezvousing at an undisclosed location near the capital city of Kabul on Thursday, all evacuees were provided with required vaccinations, food, water, shelter and COVID-19 PCR tests," Project DYNAMO wrote in a news release. "Thereafter, those being exfiltrated were quietly bussed to Kabul International Airport where they departed via aircraft."

Stern, who co-founded Project DYNAMO, said it was an indescribable feeling when the plane's landing gear touched down in New York City.

"For those still trapped in Afghanistan looking for a way out, please know we haven’t forgotten about you," Stern wrote in a statement.

This is the fifth large-scale rescue mission Project DYNAMO has completed. Stern said when his team and evacuees finally touch down on American soil, it's always emotional. 

"I had a little boy tell me, 'Mommy hasn't smiled in so long. Thank you DYNAMO,'" Stern recounted. "It just breaks your heart."

Many of the people evacuated have been waiting for months and trying to work with U.S. government entities to get back to the states.  

Naser Majroh was working as a private-sector adviser at Camp Baron, near the Kabul airport, when the Taliban seized control of the country this past summer. Majroh and 14 family members were stuck in Afghanistan for months.

“We were able to make plans with the U.S. State Department, but were unable to get to our gate because so many people were trying to leave,” Majroh told Project DYNAMO. “The Taliban were hitting us, shooting into the air; my son’s arm was broken [by the Taliban] while I was presenting his U.S. passport, so we had to wait until he healed before we could leave Afghanistan.”

Project DYNAMO says it helped supply Majroh's family with food before evacuating them. His wife was crying tears of joy as they arrived in the U.S.

Taj Momand was also among the people evacuated this past weekend. He and his family of five had been in Afghanistan for his brother's wedding in September. The situation on the ground became very serious, very quickly. And they got stuck.

According to Project DYNAMO, Momand and his relatives had contacted several organizations, including the State Department, since August – but couldn't find anyone to help get them out. Recently, they heard of Project DYNAMO. The group says it had an evacuation plan in place for Momand and his loved ones within 24 hours.

“I want to tell the world that Project DYNAMO risked their safety to ensure my family’s return to America,” Momand wrote in a statement. “Thank you for rescuing us, saving our lives and bringing us back home.”

Credit: Justin Clements / Project Dynamo

This past weekend's rescue mission comes after another rescue back in December when 47 individuals were shuttled out of Kabul by Project DYNAMO.

In a statement, Project DYNAMO expressed relief it was able to go through with the most recent evacuation flight to American soil despite complications from airlines worried about a recent 5G rollout. Airlines are concerned that AT&T and Verizon’s 5G C-Band rollout in the U.S. would interfere with aircraft altimeters and disrupt air travel. Dubai-based airline Emirates recently announced it would halt flights to some U.S. cities over 5G-related concerns, but New York was unaffected.

AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay their 5G rollouts near major airports after Airlines for America penned a letter to the companies, the FAA, and the FCC. The letter was signed by nearly a dozen airline executives expressing concerns over the cancellations and delays in flights the rollout could cause. 

The 5G rollout delay is expected to be lifted, potentially impacting U.S. airports in July. 

In a statement from Airlines for America, the company said, "We are continuing to work with the FAA and all stakeholders to minimize impacts while prioritizing safety across the NAS."

Project DYNAMO's team made a last-minute decision to move its rescue mission to a sooner date because of concerns surrounding 5G-related flight cancellations. 

"Usually these things take weeks and weeks and weeks," said Stern. "The stars aligned where we had a good manifest, we had good funding, and our mechanism became apparent so we said, let's just go do this thing, let's just go."

As of this week, more than 2,000 Americans and permanent residents have been taken out of Afghanistan by Project DYNAMO.

“We’re not stopping until every last U.S. citizen and permanent resident who wants out of Afghanistan is back stateside,” Stern explained in a statement. “While we’re expecting the State Department to provide assistance soon, the fact is our operations are completely funded by generous donors. The more donations we get today, the more people we can save tomorrow.”

Anyone interested in supporting Project Dynamo can learn more by clicking here.

The organization's efforts come as many individuals have called on the U.S. and other nations to do more to help people escape from under the Taliban's rule. The Taliban regained power as President Joe Biden withdrew the remaining American troops from Afghanistan. That drawdown had followed a peace agreement the Trump administration had previously reached with Taliban leaders.

The last American troops left on Aug. 30. Before then, the U.S. airlifted roughly 124,000 people out of Kabul in a six-week span.

A few more thousand people have escaped since. They've gotten out on a mix of flights arranged by the State Department and private organizations. Reality star Kim Kardashian West even chartered a flight in November to help evacuate women's youth soccer players and their family members.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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