MPA Capitol Report
Proposed pay increases for Missouri teachers advance in legislature
BY JOSEPH BEAUDET
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — As Missouri teacher pay lags behind the rest of the nation, legislators have put forth two proposals to change that.
According to the National Education Association, Missouri had an average starting teacher salary of $33,234, which ranked 50th in the nation. NEA’s ranking included Washington D.C. and only Montana had a lower average than Missouri.
The House and Senate have different proposals to move Missouri up the rankings.
The House proposed bringing funding back for Career Ladder. The program helped pay teachers for handling extracurricular activities for about 25 years before losing state funding.
The other approach is a proposal from Gov. Mike Parson to implement a statewide baseline teacher salary. The Senate adopted an expanded version of Parson’s plan and also backed restoration of the Career Ladder program for more experienced teachers.
The Career Ladder program began in 1985 and helped pay teachers with state and school district funds for activities outside of the classroom such as tutoring. Missouri legislators have not appropriated funds for the program since the 2011-12 school year. The state provided $37.4 million for the Career Ladder program that year.
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, said funding Career Ladder was the compromise after she learned Parson’s baseline salary plan would not be funded by the House Budget Committee.
Noelle Gilzow, president of Columbia Missouri National Education Association, said that the return of the program is good for current teachers.
“For our veteran teachers, it would mean extra pay for work they are likely doing anyway, which is a good thing to honor that work,” she said.
Parson’s baseline educator salary would require that teachers across Missouri be paid at least $38,000 per year, at a cost to the state of $21.8 million.
The Senate adopted Parson’s proposal and added about $10 million. Under the Senate version, the state would pay for 70% of the cost of improving baseline salaries, with the remaining 30% paid for by the district.
Michelle Baumstark, chief communications officer for Columbia Public Schools, said the district has made improvements to teacher pay.
“Most recently, we’ve made significant improvements ... to the base starting pay for new teachers,” she said. The Missourian previously reported that the starting pay would increase to $40,250, meaning CPS teachers would not receive a raise under Parson’s plan.
Nurrenbern, a teacher, said she thinks Parson’s plan is great, but more needs to be done for teachers currently paid $38,000 or more.
“I would like us to examine teacher pay across the industry,” Nurrenbern said.
At $38,000 for teachers, Missouri would be ranked 40th in the nation, ahead of 10 states, including Nebraska and Arkansas.
Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, said he hopes to make the Career Ladder program more consistent across the state. House Bill 2493, sponsored by Black, lays out an explicit list of ways a teacher may be made eligible for payments under the program.
Under current law, a teacher must have five years of public school teaching experience to apply for the program. Black’s bill would lower the requirement to two years before a teacher may apply.
Those eligible after two years would include coaches, tutors and teachers receiving further training or education. This is the first stage of the program and could pay teachers up to $1,500.
To reach the second stage, teachers would have to have two years of experience at the first stage. Teachers in Stage Two could be paid a stipend of up to $3,000. Advancement into Stage Three would require three years of experience at Stage Two. Teachers at Stage Three could be paid up to $5,000.
Black said making the money available earlier is an effort to financially incentivize teachers to remain in the industry longer.
The bill calls for 60% of the program’s funding to be provided by the state. The remaining 40% would be provided by school districts.
The House passed HB 2493 on a vote of 135 to 3. The bill was assigned to the Senate Education Committee and could have a hearing as early as next week.
A joint House-Senate negotiating committee will iron out differences in the budgets passed by the chambers. Both have approved roughly $37.4 million to once again provide state funding for the Career Ladder program. The Senate added roughly $31.7 million for Parson’s baseline educator salary.
Missouri legislators take on youth sports bans for transgender athletes
BY TEGHAN SIMONTON
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House on Thursday advanced legislation setting restrictions for transgender athletes in youth sports. But the legislation could stall in the Senate.
The House passed two bills containing amendments that could stop transgender students from playing sports on school teams that align with their gender identity.
Those bills are now headed to the Senate, where they could be blocked. Only hours after the House bills passed, Democratic senators filibustered a Senate bill containing similar language. It was ultimately set aside.
Amendments have been added to several pieces of legislation in the House that would make athletes playing sex-segregated sports eligible to play only on teams organized for the sex on their birth certificate. In the House, the amendments were attached to a bill regulating school buses and a bill expanding voter ID requirements and other elections provisions.
Speaking on the school bus bill, Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, called the amendment uncompassionate and said it would harm transgender youth. Mackey, who is openly gay, said the pattern of legislation also represents a step toward further restricting the rights of LGBTQ people.
“We have to realize the rights that we have taken for granted are at stake. Our institutions are at stake,” he said.
Democrats also criticized the elections bill, which imposes voter ID requirements, prohibits the use of private money for election administration and changes other election-related rules. The bill also contains an amendment allowing school districts to ask voters to adopt policies prohibiting “students of the male sex from participating in athletic activities exclusively for females,” according to the bill’s summary.
“If you’re looking for the good in the bill, you’re looking for a piece of hay in a needlestack,” said Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale.
Several Democratic House members lamented the way bills in both chambers have repeatedly been “hijacked” with unrelated and inflammatory amendments.
Passage of these amendments remained at the forefront even as discussion moved on to additional bills.
“You all need to think about what you do,” said Rep. Patty Lewis, D-Kansas City, speaking on a bill establishing a benchmark for teachers to be trained in suicide prevention. “We are in support of suicide prevention, but what we did earlier, attacking the marginalized communities, is disgraceful.”
But the House bills could stall in the Senate, where just hours after the House bills passed, Democrats used their ability to filibuster and thus delay similar legislation proposed by Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove. Moon’s bill, SB 781, would stop transgender girls from competing on women’s sports teams and prohibit any school that allows it to happen from receiving state funds.
Democrats spent hours describing historical events of discrimination for LGBTQ people in the U.S. Eventually, the bill was shelved, and senators left for the weekend. Two more weeks remain in the legislative session.
A deluge of legislation related to trans athletes has appeared in numerous state legislatures across the country. More than half the states in the U.S. have introduced laws banning transgender students from playing on a team that differs from their birth sex. In Indiana and Utah, bills were passed by the legislature only to be vetoed by Republican governors.
House and Senate set to negotiate on state budget
BY EVAN LASSETER
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — The state budget for next fiscal year is headed to a joint Missouri House and Senate negotiating committee to decide which versions of the budget bills to pass.
Both the House and Senate voted Wednesday to reject each other’s proposals for the new budget and seek compromises. The two chambers must agree on identical budget bills before the plan can be sent to Gov. Mike Parson.
The conference committee is expected to begin work next week. The deadline for passage of the budget is May 6; the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, supported sending the bills to a conference committee.
“Overall, I would say from what we’re starting to see in those changes, a lot of really good changes were made,” Merideth said. “I hope we will be able to go to conference and keep a good number of those changes.”
The Senate version allows for an increase in starting teacher salaries that would give educators a $38,000 base pay. The House’s proposal does not include the measure, but it allows for a “career ladder” program, which institutes pay based on teacher performance.
The Senate teacher pay proposal came from Parson, who announced it during his State of the State speech in January.
House Budget chairperson Cody Smith, R-Carthage, raised concerns about passing the teacher pay increases when it’s uncertain if future legislatures will continue the funding. Another lawmaker, Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, said the Senate-proposed pay raise doesn’t do enough for veteran educators.
“We haven’t done anything for our experienced teachers, and this doesn’t do anything for those experienced teachers either, and we need to address that,” Lewis said.
One budget item would fully fund transportation for K-12 schools. The Senate proposes around $328 million for school transportation, and the House proposes close to $114 million.
“I also hope that we can really go in with the intention of keeping the increase in school transportation funding,” Merideth said. “That would be a really enormous success for us to come out of this year.”
Senate bill would allow business deductions for medical marijuana providers
BY SKYLAR LAIRD
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — A bill passed by a Missouri House committee Wednesday aims to level the playing field for medical marijuana businesses when it comes to taxes.
SB 807 would allow people operating authorized medical marijuana businesses to claim the same income tax deductions they would if they were operating any other business. Currently, these deductions are not allowed because cannabis is illegal at a federal level, which Missouri’s tax system defers to.
A similar bill made it to the governor’s desk last year before being vetoed for unrelated reasons.
“The purpose of the bill is to essentially decouple from the federal regulations and allow expenses that would normally be deductible for any other business,” said David Smith, treasurer of Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association.
This would put medical marijuana on even footing with other industries.
“It’s hard enough to run a small business these days, especially during the pandemic getting this off the ground, but having to pay more taxes than any other small business in your community certainly is detrimental, we think, to economic growth,” said Jack Cardetti, spokesperson for MOCann Trade Association.
The impact extends beyond the businesses themselves to the people purchasing cannabis products.
“Because, obviously, the more the businesses have to pay, the more the consumer will have to pay,” Cardetti said.
As of Jan. 7, there were 308 businesses licensed to test, cultivate, manufacture, dispense or transport medical marijuana in the state. These operators deducting business expenses from their income taxes would result in “an unknown, but significant” cost to the state, according to a financial analysis. The analysis reported there was not enough information available to determine the precise cost.
The House committee passed a substitute that would additionally require the Department of Health and Senior Services to authorize licenses to any applicants who qualified, regardless of the current limits on licenses.
Currently, the department is allowed to issue a maximum of 60 licenses to cultivation facilities, 86 to manufacturing facilities, 10 to testing labs and 192 to dispensaries.
Smith said he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the substitute, but in general, losing these caps would be a cause for concern.
“My personal take is that getting rid of the license caps is not good for the industry and not good for patients in Missouri as a whole,” Smith said.
He pointed to Oklahoma as an example of what might happen. A lack of license caps, along with other lax regulations, overwhelmed the regulatory system and diluted the market, leading to concerns of organized crime, unethical labor practices and higher competition.
“It becomes much more difficult from a regulatory environment to ensure quality of product — not only quality of product but security and safety,” Smith said. “It is and should continue to be a highly regulated industry.”
The bill will head next to the House floor.
House upholds gas tax increase
BY JOSEPH BEAUDET
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — Rep. Sara Walsh was rebuffed by fellow Republicans Wednesday over an amendment that would have restricted the gas tax increases passed by the legislature in 2021.
Missouri’s gas tax rate is currently 19.5 cents per gallon, which is one of the lowest in the nation, according to American Petroleum Institute. The gas tax is scheduled to increase 2.5 cents each year until 2025, when it would reach a rate of 29.5 cents per gallon.
Walsh, R-Ashland, offered an amendment that would have paused the gas tax increase for two years if average gas prices exceeded $3.50 per gallon in Missouri.
Walsh emphasized multiple times that she would rather repeal the gas tax increases as a whole, but this was an amendment of compromise.
Some rural Republicans said the tax is vital to their constituents.
Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, said the tax helps fund the sparsely populated counties she represents and it should not be paused.
“You’ve already given them the carrot, you can’t take it away,” she said. Some of the counties rely on the money to make improvements to gravel and dirt roads.
Rep. Dean Van Schoiack, R-Savannah, said he had spoken to constituents and many were OK with the gas tax increase.
“They said ‘Fix our roads. We gotta get our roads fixed,’” Van Schoiack said.
The House defeated Walsh’s amendment with a vote of 61-55. A number of Democrats declined to take a position, voting “present.”
Walsh is a candidate for the 4th District congressional seat. Her amendment was proposed as a part of a larger bill, SB 820, that among other things would restrict how homeowners’ associations implement rules regarding placement of solar panels.
17-year olds to be considered children under proposed law
BY SRIJITA DATTA
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — When it comes to filing missing person reports in Missouri, those 17 years of age or older are not considered children under existing law. A bill — HB 1559 — that received first-round approval from the House on Tuesday aims to change that.
Rep. Bishop Davidson, R-Republic and the bill’s sponsor, said that, if passed, it would change the definition of a missing child from under 17 to under 18. He explained that when a 17-year-old runs away from home, the parents or legal guardians continue to be legally responsible for the youth’s health and education. Yet, the parent could not file a missing person report.
Supporters of the bill have said that the proposed age adjustment could fix loopholes that allow liability for those 17-years-old, but do not allow the same parents to call the police to find their missing 17-year-old.
Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau, asked whether the bill would include any parental permissions for medical procedures or similar things for 17-year-olds in the same way it does for those 16 and younger.
Davidson answered that the bill does not cover anything along those lines.
Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, said she was shocked to learn that police often don’t search for a 17-year-old because of the current state statute. She cited a Department of Homeland Security report that found over 900 children in foster care went missing in 2019.
Davidson responded that according to the bill, a missing child could also include a person still in foster care regardless of age — which is currently not the case.
The bill needs another vote to move to the Senate.
Catalytic converter bill is opposed by auto shops, metal dealers
BY SEAN BRYNDA
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — Auto shops and metal recycling centers are fighting legislation that would add vetting processes for anyone who sells catalytic converters.
Under a House-passed bill, auto shops, scrap metal dealers and others regulated by the state would need to have proof that they run real repair shops and sign an affidavit that each converter that has been sold to them was lawfully acquired.
Lobbyist Shannon Cooper, representing Advantage Metals Recycling, told the Senate Small Business and Industry Committee on Tuesday that the bill targets and threatens small businesses.
“Basically, all this does, is make it more difficult for legitimate businesses to operate,” Cooper said. “We have seven photos of you by the time you leave any one of our shops.”
“We have identity of the vehicle you are in, your license plate, we have a photo of you, we have a photo of the materials that you are selling us, we have a photograph of your driver’s license, and now you want to add subjective language that our employees ought to know whether a person is a crook just because he pulls up with two catalytic converters? You want us to now report information whether if it is truthful or not and is meaningless when helping law enforcement?”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, testified before the committee, saying that stolen catalytic converters have become a statewide problem.
“In or around 2018, there was a significant increase in the value for the constituent parts of catalytic converters, and it seemed to be an easy pickup for people who steal them,” Mayhew said. “Almost all of these folks, at least in my county, are also involved in the drug trade in some form or another.”
Mayhew cited multiple reports of stolen converters across the state, especially in communities such as Springfield and Lee’s Summit. His HB 2574 seeks to strengthen an existing law that is ineffective in charging people for stealing converters.
Cooper said the proposed legislation would result in shops not taking converters, because of the additional work that the shops would have to do. Cooper went on to say that with shops not taking converters, it would significantly limit what shops could do to support local law enforcement in investigations.
“We work on a daily basis to help law enforcement. Our records are always open every day. We take pride in the fact that we have good records that law enforcement can access,” Cooper said. “There was a sting operation in (the) Sedalia area last year, and our facility provided catalytic converters to assist police in their operation.”
Brandon Koch from the Missouri Insurance Coalition testified in support of Mayhew’s bill. Koch said that stolen converters are a huge issue for insurance companies from a claims perspective.
“The damage that is done to the part and to the vehicle, the rental expenses, the inconvenience ... It is a growing problem and any steps that can be taken to stop this from happening in the state, we are in support of,” Koch said.
Legislators bike to Katy Trail and talk Rock Island Trail
BY EMMA J. MURPHY
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — Missourians gathered outside the Capitol on Monday morning to go on a bike ride with their legislators.
The Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation’s annual Bicycle, Pedestrian, & Trail Day at the Capitol brought Reps. John Simmons, R-Washington, and Willard Haley, R-Eldon, out with their biking gear, ready to ride to the Katy Trail. Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, also attended the event but said she left her biking clothes in her office.
The Senate is expected to vote soon on whether to approve $70.7 million the House passed for the Rock Island Trail development. Gov. Mike Parson proposed the development of 78 miles of the Rock Island corridor, stretching from Eugene to Beaufort. A Senate proposal would cut $3 million in funding for the 2022 fiscal year for the trail’s planning and maintenance; the trail’s construction money is in the 2023 fiscal year budget, which is awaiting action in the Senate.
Those at the event said the Rock Island Trail would bring tourism to the state and improve the health of Missourians who use it. Many expressed hope that the Senate would approve money to fund the development.
Before departing on bikes, the crowd of about 30 listened to a few speakers. Simmons said he remembered when the Katy Trail was being debated. He said they are hearing the same concerns brought up for the Katy Trail, such as worries about littering and trespassing on private property, that are being said again about the Rock Island Trail.
Haley said “the Rock Island Trail will be completed. It’s just a matter of proper funding being there to get it done in a timely manner.”
Phifer told the audience to “keep pushing and keep pedaling” and emphasized the importance of public and private partnerships in completing projects such as the Rock Island Trail.
Jefferson City’s mayor, Carrie Tergin, was ready to ride with her bright-yellow biking outfit. She said the event raised awareness of the importance of biking infrastructure. She said in the past, with these projects, “people said, ‘Why?’ and now they’re saying ‘why didn’t you do it sooner?’ They love it. I know with Rock Island that’s the same sentiment we’re seeing.”
Dru Buntin, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said DNR is working to maintain current parks and trails, but he also mentioned the potential of the Rock Island Trail as a draw for tourism.
Parson’s recommendation would use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for the trail’s development.
Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has said the Senate may be split when it comes to funding for the project, as many senators are more concerned about funding maintenance for existing projects.
Parolees incentivized to work in new proposal
BY EMMA LINGO
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation heard by a Senate panel Monday would provide an incentive for parolees to work.
The “Earning Safe Reentry Through Work Act” would allow some offenders to earn credits that would reduce their sentences for each day worked. To do this, parolees would have to maintain employment and be in compliance with court-ordered conditions of supervision.
For each month worked, former inmates could earn up to 20 days off their parole.
To prove eligible employment, parolees would have to provide verifiable documents from their employers, such as pay stubs and tax forms.
“This bill will help with recidivism,” Rita Linhardt, senior associate at Missouri Catholic Conference, said. “A former inmate who keeps a job is three times less likely to reoffend, which keeps us safer. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the parolee and it’s good for our community.”
The bill’s sponsor, Derek Grier, R-Chesterfield, also cited this statistic. Linhardt and Grier said they support supervised second chances.
Representatives from Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City also supported the proposed legislation, HB2088, because of its potential economic benefits.
“Helping successfully transition inmates from the correctional process into the workforce provides not only a boost for employers but also provides a social need by helping former inmates transition to quality employment,” Jim Erickson, director of strategic initiatives for the Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City, said.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill and it passed the House in early April with one vote against it.
Next, it will need to gain approval by the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee before moving to the full Senate for debate.
Missouri lawmakers part of national push in transgender legislation
BY NOAH KLEIN
Missouri News Network
try again this year to pass legislation aimed at transgender youth, they are part of a national movement of statehouse conservatives pushing similar restrictions.
Iowa leads the country with at least 14 bills; Missouri has at least eight, and the number is growing as lawmakers add such measures as amendments to existing bills.
Such efforts have been proposed in state legislatures for several years, with limited success. This year, there have been some high-profile victories.
Missouri lawmakers approved an amendment on the House floor Wednesday that would allow school districts to bar transgender girls from participating in girls’ school sports. The amendment came from Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, who offered the proposal as an amendment to an unrelated elections bill — Basye’s amendment was originally part of his own legislation, HB 2734.
Fighting for LGBTQ rights
PROMO is a nonprofit group in Missouri that tries to stop legislation targeting the LGBTQ community.
“We feel that nobody should be trying to make it any harder for marginalized individuals at all, they already have a particularly hard time navigating to just live their life to find supportive family, supportive peers. Our elected leaders shouldn’t be trying to make it more challenging for them,” Shira Berkowitz, senior director of public policy and advocacy, said.
Berkowitz said the group aims to stop the legislation by educating lawmakers on the potential impact it could have on the LGBTQ community.
“When the youth in our state hear there is legislation attacking them, their mental health becomes at risk, we don’t need that on our hands at all,” Berkowitz said. “But of course we also work really hard across party lines, to educate our party leaders that there is a real harm and risk.”
At the start of the 2021 session, Missouri introduced nine bills and was second only to Texas with 12. None of the bills reached Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.
Freedom for All Americans, which supports nondiscrimination efforts for the LGBTQ+ community, tracks anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the U.S. According to its tracker, right now there are 131 bills targeting transgender people across the country.
Several of the bills attempt to create legislation that does not allow people to participate in sports leagues or teams designated for females. However, not all of the bills have to do with what sports someone can play; some have to do with medical procedures.
A bill currently moving into the Arizona Senate would make it illegal for a doctor to perform an “irreversible gender reassignment surgery to a minor.”
Late last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a letter to state health agencies announcing that delivering gender-affirming medical treatments to transgender youths “constitutes child abuse” under state law.
Legislation in Kansas, SB 484, is another sports bill. It would “require that student athletic teams only include members who are of the same biological sex unless designated as coed.”
Earlier this year Florida Gov. Ron Desantis signed what opponents call the “Don’t say gay bill,” regulating what is taught in schools.
Several states, including Missouri, also have school-related bills.
HB 1669, sponsored by, Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson, prohibits public schools from requiring students to engage in any form of mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling.
'No other option': Afghans put trust in strangers from Missouri before harrowing escape to safety
BY ELI HOFF
Missouri News Network
The sun has just risen, and Timothy Griffin thinks he’s killed Shela Alokozai.
He’s sitting at his laptop in Jefferson City. He doesn’t know where she or her children are, but he can assume.
Griffin is a military man. He had worked as a counterinsurgency specialist for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. He understands what happens in these situations.
And so, when a suicide bomber detonates among a crowd outside the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate, Griffin assumes the worst.
Because Shela was sent there, kids in tow, on his orders, Griffin also assumes responsibility. He insisted. She trusted.
After his calls to Shela, who is 7,000 miles away, go unanswered, a sleep-deprived Griffin types out a message to his military contacts.
“BREAK! BREAK! BREAK!” Griffin writes in a jargoned panic, to get their attention. “URGENCY: CRITICAL.”
There are others, Shela’s family members, who are alive and are still relying on Griffin to escape a collapsing country.
But Griffin has lost hope. He asks himself: “Well, what’s the point now?”
‘Nobody knew who was innocent’
In the beginning, there was terror.
It woke Ahmad Siam Alokozai: People, so many people, rushing, pushing, crushing each other on the street outside early in the morning. They were headed in every direction, but many went toward the airport.
Siam reacted quickly. He collected his wife, Shela, and their four children. His sister, Bibi Nelo Babakar Khail — a widow with eight children — came too.
The Afghan government had just collapsed following a relatively quick takeover by the Taliban.
People ran to the Kabul airport. They weren’t all thinking of evacuation — yet, anyway. But foreigners controlled the airport, which could mean safety.
The threat of the Taliban hit close for Siam, who previously assisted the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I knew that he would be killed for sure because of his experience,” said Ahmad Elham Alokozai, Siam’s brother, who also worked with U.S. forces.
Siam said that “nobody knew who was innocent, who was not innocent, in front of the Taliban.”
So they went to the airport, which wasn’t far from the family’s apartment. That was the only plan.
‘Words of comfort’
Griffin’s phone buzzed. His old teacher, Elham, was on the line with a question.
The two met nine years prior when Elham taught him Pashto — one of Afghanistan’s two official languages — during military training. Close in age, they bonded.
“He was one of the smartest students,” Elham remembers. “He liked learning.”
They would chat from time to time, but this call was different.
Elham explained the situation: There were 19 of his relatives — five adults and 14 children — who needed evacuation from Kabul.
His request for Griffin was straightforward: “Is there anything you can do?”
Griffin, the director of constituency services for Missouri Sen. Steven Roberts, shakily promised to do his best.
“Those were more like words of comfort,” Griffin said. “At the time, I didn’t really think I was gonna be able to do anything.”
But he took on the challenge. Griffin enlisted the help of Timothy Hayes, a personal injury attorney from Springfield, Missouri. Griffin and Hayes worked together for a rescue-focused international nongovernmental organization, so Griffin thought Hayes might know people working to evacuate former translators.
The easy part, relatively speaking, was securing access to a flight for Elham’s parents and teenage sisters, who had green cards. It still wasn’t a smooth departure, with vital paperwork lost to the Kabul airport crowd.
That left 15 people to rescue: Siam, Shela, Nelo and 12 children, ranging in ages from 2 to 17.
‘Pure, chaotic bedlam’
In the days following the Afghan government’s collapse, options were limited: Staying felt risky, but so did trying to escape.
A viral social media video showed a plane take off with desperate people clinging to its landing gear; bodies fell to the ground as specks moments later. (Siam said he spotted a childhood friend attaching himself to that plane. The friend didn’t survive.)
Siam remembers the scenes, though he calls it “indescribable.” He likens particular moments to the crush of angry fans at a soccer game. Parents and kids were separated. People boarded damaged planes, missing doors be damned, in the hope that they might somehow take flight.
Once the airport was cleared, the crowds waited at its boundaries, desperate for a way in through one of its gates.
The family waited, too. They stayed, diligently, among the masses — frequently until the early hours of the morning, only to return a few hours later.
Griffin and Hayes mobilized on the other side of the globe. Griffin grew frustrated with U.S. immigration offices and contacted Canada’s citizenship service, which promptly issued letters certifying that the family members were Canadian citizens and should be allowed to board one of the country’s remaining planes out of Kabul.
But those letters would only matter if the troops barricading the airport’s gates accepted them.
At times, the American duo worked sleeplessly across time zones to make contact with someone, anyone, inside the airport who could help bring the family inside.
“It was pure, chaotic bedlam for several days there,” Hayes said.
And then, miraculously, came a breakthrough. Siam made it inside.
His letter had worked. He got to a terminal.
He was there alone and told that he only had 24 hours for the rest of his family to join him. If that didn’t happen, he would have to choose between leaving the airport or leaving his family behind.
But what good was it for only him to escape? Griffin had to convince him to remain in the terminal.
His sister Nelo joined him after she and her children jumped into a wastewater canal on the edge of the military barricade. Soldiers pulled them from the water. They were through.
Shela and four children were the only ones left outside. And Griffin and Hayes had a plan.
Through the founder of the organization they volunteered with, they finally secured a contact inside the airport. That contact sent Griffin the apparent key to getting Shela to a terminal.
It was a U.S. Special Forces symbol that Marines there would recognize: the name “Thor” beneath a depiction of the Norse god, with a 5 and 8 on either side.
Shela needed to show it to soldiers at the Abbey Gate.
But there was a problem: She didn’t want to go.
Shela was exhausted. Her kids were, too.
The days of anxiety and anguish eroded their will to wait in the sweltering crowds.
Siam’s parents, who had made it to Germany, tried to persuade her to return to the airport. Shela refused.
“It’s impossible,” she said.
Griffin understood her fatigue, but he was weighing the unrelenting pressure of time, too. There was no guarantee that flights would continue out of Kabul for much longer.
Once foreign planes left, “that’s it,” he told Elham. “She will not be able to get out.”
With this in mind, Elham eventually won her over. A cousin with a car drove Shela and the children to the edge of the crowd at the airport’s Abbey Gate.
They pressed toward the front of the crowd. Two of Shela’s children passed out, from dehydration or the grueling sunlight or some combination of both. She carried them, wondering if they would die, back to the edge of the crowd.
This probably saved their lives.
The bomb exploded at 5:36 p.m. Kabul time. Because she’d retreated, Shela and her kids were half a mile away.
Her phone was dead, so she couldn’t answer calls. Those stateside felt sure she had died.
When Shela called Elham several hours later, it was pure relief, even if not all the news was good: Because of the bombing, the entire family had been removed from the airport.
It had taken so much time, so much energy, so much risk, to have gotten them to the airport — and now, they were back where they started.
Late-night work continued in Missouri without much progress. Hayes shed more than a few tears, feeling the weight of responsibility.
He and Griffin obtained visas to fly to Tajikistan, with the goal of meeting the family at that border and bringing them to a U.S. Embassy there. But the presence of Russian troops deterred them — another moment of optimism followed, inevitably, by letdown.
Griffin realized repeated failure was the harsh reality of the situation.
“Every day we would work for hours at a time,” he said. “Something horrible would go wrong. And then I started to think that, ‘all right, we’re not gonna be able to pull it off.’”
The final push
Two plans had failed. The family left their apartment, which was too close to the new Taliban headquarters for comfort.
Griffin had another idea. Crossing the Tajik border wasn’t an option — but going east through Pakistan might be.
And he knew someone with the Pakistani border patrol, a contact from his counter-insurgency days. Griffin and Hayes secured the paperwork the family would need at the border.
The plan was tenuous at best, but the family agreed.
for two cars to take the 15 family members to a spot on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border called Torkham Gate.
Along the way, the family had to pass through multiple Taliban checkpoints, where guards were intent on keeping Afghans from leaving the country.
A family headed toward a border undoubtedly drew suspicion, but Siam dodged it. He or Shela pretended to be sick, telling guards they were headed to Pakistan to seek treatment.
It worked, and they reached Torkham Gate.
The border contact brought them through, and the family reached a safe house in Peshawar, Pakistan.
They sent photos to Griffin and Hayes, a sign that they were safe.
“Once they got to there, we knew they were not going to be kidnapped and killed by the Taliban,” Hayes said.
The family had to keep a low profile — they had arrived illegally, and the anti-Afghan immigrant sentiment was rife. Siam said he was repeatedly called a coward for fleeing his country.
In order to fly to Canada, the family would need to get to the capital city of Islamabad.
Elham contacted Canadian immigration services — occasionally pretending to be Siam over the phone — while trying to finalize somewhere for the family to go. Progress was slow, so the family left for Islamabad without much concrete information about what would happen there.
“I was really scared internally, but I was not showing that to the family,” he said.
An arranged driver dropped the family off in Islamabad, but in the wrong spot. The kids were tired and hungry. The adults were lost.
It was crunch time for Elham to determine their next step. Hayes booked a hotel on short notice, buying them a couple days of time.
Moments later, he received a call from the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency that relocates refugees. They had a hotel for the family and were apologetic for the delay — they’d simply been on the phone helping others.
In the IOM’s friendly hands, a final logistical push would put the family on a plane, with Canada as their final destination.
Sixty-eight days after they joined a throng in a dash for the Kabul airport, it was over.
‘Happy and lucky’
Siam can laugh now.
It’s been about six months since the family landed in Toronto. They feel welcomed there, he says. He considers them the “most happy and lucky people.”
That’s not to say that it’s easy for him to move on from Afghanistan. Siam describes the moment he boarded that plane in Islamabad as bittersweet. Yes, there was relief, but there was also so much was left behind.
Homes and childhoods and so many possessions are gone. Most of the family left for Pakistan with only the clothes they were wearing.
“Everything,” he said, “has been taken away.”
‘Average citizens can make an impact’
These days, Hayes focuses on a different crisis.
His daughter, a nurse, is in Ukraine helping refugees escape the Russian invasion. He checks in with her on FaceTime to make sure she’s OK.
When he’s not working at his Springfield law practice, this is what he does. He spent about $15,000 to help the family leave Afghanistan without a second thought.
And it’s possible for him to continue to do this kind of thing, thanks to the connectivity of the 21st century.
“If you work hard enough and put a little bit of money toward it,” Hayes says, “average citizens can make an impact that was not possible 20 years ago.”
A matter of trust
There’s something that Griffin still doesn’t understand.
Why, for 68 death-defying days, did Siam, Shela and Nelo trust him?
“That was something I thought about every moment,” Griffin says. “I’m literally making life-and-death decisions, not only for these people but for these little kids. And they are doing everything that we are instructing them to do. Why?”
“I would like to know that.”
Maybe it was his experience, or that he spoke with them in Pashto. It could have been Griffin’s relationship with Elham, a preexisting connection to the family.
But no, it was simple for Siam. Why would he trust relative strangers half a world away with his family?
“No other option.”
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