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From Rural Missouri, A Desperate Effort To Get Afghans Out Of Afghanistan

NOEL KING, HOST:

People quite literally around the world are trying to help Afghans who want to get out of their country. Some of this work is taking place mostly at night on a small farm outside of Higginsville, Mo. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Kyle Wilkens and his family run a small farm out on the rolling countryside of eastern Missouri.

KYLE WILKENS: We're out here on 24 acres on a gravel road. We have about 40 chickens, about four hogs and then, of course, these two dogs and I guess about eight cats. So (laughter)...

MORRIS: This place isn't as restful as it used to be. Wilkens sits in the dark, perched on a patio chair outside his garage, his cellphone lighting his face, fielding urgent WhatsApp messages all night long.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION TONE)

WILKENS: The text just came in. That sound is - it's ingrained in my mind. And it makes me - it really makes me perk up.

MORRIS: Because it means that someone desperately trying to flee Afghanistan needs his help.

WILKENS: And all I know is they're getting more desperate by the hour, they're scared, they don't want to be scared. But they know that we are really their only hope right now.

MORRIS: By we, Wilkens means Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and his staff. Wilkens works out of Cleaver's Higginsville field office. But years ago, he worked on Capitol Hill for the Armed Services Committee. He developed contacts in the military and the State Department and used those connections this month to help an interpreter escape Afghanistan. That success triggered a flood of calls. Now Wilkens says the office has helped with evacuating some 20 people, mainly U.S.-friendly translators and their families, and is actively trying to rescue 150 or so more.

WILKENS: These people would probably die or go through a very horrible existence if we can't help them get out. So I don't know - I don't know the right emotions for it. It feels like the culmination of everything I've learned.

MORRIS: So by day, he works in the congressman's field office, entering data and coordinating with the State Department. At night, he plunges back into the immediate personal crises at hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WILKENS: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How are you, dear brother?

WILKENS: Oh, I'm OK. How are you doing?

MORRIS: The man on the other end of the line is hiding in Kabul. He's been injured in a melee at the airport. He's trying to get his mother, himself and two other family members out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, dear brother, I will keep you updated every time.

WILKENS: Please do. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. Thank you.

WILKENS: Bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, brother.

WILKENS: Thanks. Bye.

I - the amount of appreciation is almost too much. But I know that - I just don't think they have anybody else.

MORRIS: Wilkens does his night work outdoors so that his kids can't hear the frightening calls. He doesn't want to confront them with the horrors that he's dealing with 7,000 miles away.

WILKENS: I mean, I've got three kids upstairs sleeping, and my wife's in there. And they don't - you know, we're not - we're not standing at a gate, you know, thinking that, you know, we may be dead.

MORRIS: Wilkens has worked for two weeks around the clock now, driven by the specter of the calls he'll be forced to make when the airlift ends.

WILKENS: It weighs pretty heavy when you have to talk to somebody and explain to them that, you know, we did everything we could, but we're sorry they didn't get out.

MORRIS: Kyle Wilkens dreads the unimaginable despair that those conversations are going to cause.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDLESS DIVE'S "89MMHG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.