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Afghan student shares story of escape, survival & the hero who helped him on the way

Grad with Grit: Sami Ayazi

Wyoming — In a Wyoming High School meeting room, Sami Ayazi sketches a picture of the Kabul International Airport on a whiteboard.

In black marker, he circles areas where the airport was under attack while he was attempting to flee Afghanistan on Aug. 24, 2021 after the Taliban came back to power as U.S. and Nato forces withdrew. He was part of mass exodus from the city as people faced the reality of the takeover. 

He fled by himself, because his family was staying in another area of Afghanistan to attend his grandmother’s funeral. He had stayed back to make sure the home remained secure.

He describes the chaos in Kabul on the days leading up to his escape. 

“Until Aug. 30 it was not a good time to be in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, the capital. There was all the genocide going on and the religious problems over there. Somehow I ended up going to the airport.”

On the way, as he moved with the crowd, terror unfolded all around him. 

“It was the most horrifying scene I’ve seen in my life,” he said, describing how members of the Taliban followed them.

Children and mothers were crying and wailing; he witnessed people being killed and other acts of violence and desperation like none he’d ever seen before. Everyone was pushing. A woman laid in the middle of the commotion giving birth. The crowd continued to move forward. 

Then there was an explosion, and everything went black. 

“I wasn’t able to move or see anything,” Sami recalls. “Then someone grabbed me from (behind)…The next thing I remember was, I woke up in a hospital and people were speaking English.”

He was in a military hospital in Qatar. Someone had gotten him out of Afghanistan and saved his life. About 300 unaccompanied children were evacuated from Afghanistan and transported to Qatar, Germany and other countries after Aug. 14. Many other children were also at the hospital with Sami.

Hours after he awoke, a man came to see him and said, “Sorry.” Sami later realized he had been the one to grab him after the explosion.

“I knew he was apologizing for the grenade that he threw to stop people from entering the airport,” Sami said.

The man told him his name was David Steffens. He said he was an American soldier. Sami is on a quest to find him. 

“Now I know he was the hero of my life.”

Sami has an email address jotted on a piece of paper. He has sent messages, but they keep bouncing back. He has searched online and made inquiries to U.S. military representatives who have visited Wyoming.

A New Life in Wyoming

Sami tells his extraordinary story of escape, rescue, recovery and resettlement just weeks from the day when he will celebrate a normal teenage milestone. On May 22 he will graduate from Wyoming High School with plans to attend Western Michigan University in the fall. He’s thinking about majoring in business.

After arriving in Qatar, Sami wasn’t able to contact his family for a month and a half. When he finally called home, his parents and siblings were shocked and elated to hear his voice.

“They thought that I had died. I have a fake grave, actually.”

After recovering in Qatar, Sami said he was moved to Chicago and then Albion, Michigan, before being moved again to Atlanta, Georgia, to be treated for mental health issues that had developed due to trauma. Nine months later he moved back to Grand Rapids through Bethany Christian Services. He now lives independently.

Soon after arriving in Grand Rapids, Sami met another young Afghan man named Zabihullah “Zabi” Najafi, through a mutual acquaintance. Sami and Zabi are both Hazaras, from an ethnolinguistic group originally from the mountainous region of central Afghanistan. Hazaras are one of the most persecuted groups in Afghanistan.

Sami was trying to choose a school to enroll in, and Zabi told him about Wyoming High School. 

Sami Ayazi is described as a helper of other students

“We are from the same village. He helped me to prepare myself for going to school and having good grades.”

High school was a completely new experience for Sami, who had only attended school sporadically in Afghanistan, and had learned some English in Qatar. He said he got a lot of help from Wyoming teachers.

“They had a really good impact. They supported me to … go forward.”

While attending class and making friends, Sami was, all the while, trying to help his family, including his mother, father, a sister and two brothers, also immigrate to the United States. He began working as well, sending money to his family. Their safety was constantly on his mind, he said.

Several months after starting school he received word that his family had also made it to Qatar. They have since resettled in New Mexico. 

With the fear concerning his family subsided, he could focus on his grades, which climbed from C’s to A’s. He stayed for help after school every day.  “I was like I have a 3.3 GPA; that’s good.”

He wrote about his experience in the high school’s annual publication of student narratives.

Wyoming High School administrative assistant Jewel Horling helped enroll Sami and said she’s gotten to know him well.

“It’s been a pleasure seeing him when he first got here to now: confident and helping others.”

History teacher John Doyle said Sami showed initiative from Day One when he walked into U.S. History.  He immediately showed interest in understanding democracy in the U.S. and comparing it to Afghanistan’s government.

“I knew that he was going to be a special student eager to learn about our nation’s history even though he was thousands of miles from home,” Doyle said. “ Sami achieved his goals by communicating effectively and often with staff and students on a daily basis. You couldn’t help but love his excitement for learning.  Sami’s journey to America is truly remarkable. 

“I know he feels so lucky to have had a positive experience at Wyoming High School but, in reality, it was our staff who were lucky to welcome Sami to our school and community.  This is one of the perks of teaching when you can have a student from another country impact your classroom environment like Sami.”

Sami has since been helping new Afghan students become comfortable at Wyoming Junior High and the high school, and has interpreted for Horling.

“Sami is very quick to help,” she said, looking at him. “You’ve grown from people helping you to being the helper.”

As Sami recounts his journey, he talks about how he is one of just a small percent of Afghans to be resettled in the U.S. He talks about a career where he can help others be stable and secure. 

“I’m really glad that I made it here,” Sami said. “I’m really that glad Zabi showed me Wyoming … I promise that I love this school.”

Read more from Wyoming: 
The plan for me is to get them out, no matter how
Second-grade teacher: literacy is a civil right

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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