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A Sort Of 'Digital Dunkirk,' American Citizens Are Stepping In To Help Afghan Allies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Given the chaotic and, today, violent scenes at the Kabul airport, Afghans who have worked for the Americans are more and more desperate to flee. They're reaching out to friends, to volunteers and veterans groups ahead of the U.S. deadline ending evacuations. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has the story.

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SHAWN VANDIVER: And he - I'm going to have to make a change real quick.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Do what you got to do.

Shawn VanDiver, a Navy vet, is with the San Diego chapter of the Truman National Security Project. He's a busy man. He had to stop answering my questions to check on Afghans trying to make their way to the U.S.

VANDIVER: Nothing like this has ever happened before. This is the most uniquely American thing I've ever seen. People that don't do this just holding themselves up and getting out. And I'm working from 4 a.m. to midnight every day for people that we've never met.

WALSH: Supporters call it a digital Dunkirk, when hundreds of pleasure boats were pressed into service to rescue British troops trapped in France during World War II. Vet groups like No One Left Behind, which has worked for years to bring military translators back to the U.S., are working alongside hastily assembled vet coalitions like VanDiver's. These groups are also discouraging American volunteers from making the chaos worse, like chartering flights into Kabul without a clear plan to get people into the airport in time. It's heartbreaking work.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: For the - for the sake of God, I beg them to save my children.

WALSH: Desperate Afghans are reaching out, including one man who worked for an American contractor at Bagram Air Force Base in the 2000s. We're not using his name for security reasons. He's still trying to figure out the visa process.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I have a lot friends that they know me. I helped them at that time. Now it's my time to help.

KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH: Afghan vets have contacts over there. They're getting these messages, these desperate pleas for help.

WALSH: Kristofer Goldsmith is a vet advocate and Iraq War veteran. He lost touch with his unit's translator when ISIS took over. A week ago, he created Evacuate Our Allies.

GOLDSMITH: The uncertainty for me is heavy. But the certainty of knowing that these desperate cries for help suddenly go silent, that's going to be unimaginably more tough for many more people.

WALSH: He says for veterans, coming to the aid of their Afghan allies is probably the clearest objective of the 20-year war. The group is urging the White House to extend the deadline and cut through red tape so more people can be airlifted out of Kabul. Mohamed is a translator who came to San Diego less than two years ago. It took him more than three years to go through the Special Immigration Visa program. He still has family trapped in Afghanistan. He's also getting calls from other translators still there. One person spent eight days in and around the airport before giving up and going back home.

MOHAMED: Last night, he talked to me. He asking me - he said, like, can you know someone in airport to help me? I said, I can't. I know - I don't know someone else because right now everything has changed. Everything is by Taliban hand.

WALSH: For years, advocates have been frustrated by the time it takes to go through the SIV process. The number of visa approvals has jumped in the last week. Afghans finish the process at one of four U.S. military bases before quickly moving to their final destination. Etleva Bejko is with Jewish Family Services in San Diego. She says it's a challenge just finding a place for them to stay.

ETLEVA BEJKO: We got a call this morning saying that you have a family arriving at 8:30 tonight. And that's all the prep time that we got. And the biggest challenge remains the housing. Again, San Diego has a housing crisis as it is, so dealing with that in such an emergency situation makes it even more difficult.

WALSH: They arrive with few belongings. Afghans receive government assistance, but groups on the ground in the U.S. are scrambling for essentials like pots and pans and kids clothing, anything that says home.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.