Zohra would later recall that she felt the wind of a bullet graze her skin as she ran toward the airport gate, clutching her oldest child in her arms.

Only when she sat her son on a chair inside Kabul’s airport did she realize the bullet had torn through Fawad’s face. He was just 6 years old. Zohra fainted. 

Fawad was caught in the crossfire in August 2021, as thousands tried to flee Afghanistan in the final days of U.S. withdrawal.

Fawad, 6 years old, summer of 2021. Courtesy of family

In the year that followed, a network of Americans, including family members in Portland and their immigration lawyer in Damariscotta, would fight to get Fawad, his parents and his younger brother to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery.

Fawad’s condition was too severe for any hospital in Afghanistan, where he received only basic medical care and faced a lifetime of chronic illness and persecution because of his injuries and disability.

Last October, Fawad and his family arrived at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, where he has successfully undergone two reconstructive surgeries and will need several more. The team overseeing Fawad’s care includes an Army communications specialist with expertise in getting people out of life-threatening situations and a world-renowned surgeon who specializes in facial reconstruction after bullet and bomb blasts.


Foremost among the Mainers who worked to rescue Fawad is his cousin Marwa, a senior at Casco Bay High School. Her calm, determination and skill as an interpreter and advocate for her family are credited with making Fawad’s life-changing surgeries possible.

“Marwa was on speed dial for us,” said Jennifer Atkinson, the Damariscotta attorney. “The whole time I’m dealing with this amazing 16-year-old girl who is a lifeline for this traumatized family in Afghanistan.”

17-year-old Marwa listens to her mother speak about her cousin Fawad, who was shot while trying to evacuate Afghanistan. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Now 17, Marwa spoke no English when she arrived in the U.S. six years ago. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram decided not to use family members’ last names because of their fear that the Taliban could punish or even kill relatives still in Afghanistan.

During and immediately after the U.S. evacuation, Atkinson worked to help more than 20 families try to get out of Afghanistan. Almost all of the 160 or so people had ties to Afghans now living in Maine.

“The response to helping Fawad was very different,” she said. “Doors opened for him that weren’t opening for other Afghans, probably because he was a child who suffered this awful trauma and survived. But also because he had this amazing cousin in the States, Marwa, to help us advocate for him.”



It was a call no family member ever wants to receive, and it came from the other side of the world, where Afghanistan was dissolving into violence and chaos as U.S. troops withdrew and the Taliban took over.

Still in shock, Zohra, then 29, relayed the terrifying events of Aug. 18, 2021, to her older sister, Malia, who lives in Portland with her four children. They came to Maine as refugees in 2016 and became citizens in 2022.

“It was heartbreaking when I heard Fawad had been injured,” said Malia, 39, as interpreted by Marwa, her eldest child.

Fawad when he first arrived in the U.S., before his first two reconstructive surgeries. Contributed photo

Fawad had been shot as the family approached the airport, Zohra told her sister. They were so close to getting on one of the transport planes leaving the city as part of the international airlift.

When gunfire broke out, Zohra dropped to the ground, covering Fawad. Her husband, Farhad, did the same with their 4-year-old son, Emran. During a lull in the shooting, the couple agreed to run for safety, but in the mayhem they headed in different directions. They would meet up later at the hospital.

The bullet had torn through Fawad’s right cheek, shattered his nose and destroyed the base of his left eye socket, leaving him blind in that eye. Doctors at the first hospital provided basic medical care, including stitches, antibiotics and pain medication.


“They tried to take him to many hospitals, but they literally refused to give him any treatment,” Marwa recalled. “They kept on getting advised to take him outside Afghanistan, (but) all the borders were closed.”

Amid the crisis, Fawad’s parents were unable to work, had no resources for food or shelter, and were staying with relatives. Marwa scrambled to help, reaching out to lawyers, politicians and anyone else who might assist them.

“They were all really traumatized to see what happened to them and all the shooting and people getting injured and killed in front of them,” Marwa said. “They were very scared to go outside. There were times when Emran was getting up in the middle of the night just screaming and even scared of seeing Fawad because his condition was just really horrible.”

Jennifer Atkinson, an immigration lawyer in Damariscotta, is a key member of a rescue team who helped to get Fawad and his family out of Afghanistan. Courtesy of Michael Tatro


Atkinson got involved about a week after Fawad was hit. She learned about his injury in a Zoom meeting hosted by The Opportunity Alliance, a South Portland social service agency. More than 25 Mainers attended, all eager to help Afghans evacuate by the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. withdrawal.

Malia, with Marwa interpreting, cried as she spoke about her family in Kabul and Fawad’s urgent need for medical care.


Atkinson saw hope in Fawad’s unique circumstances and reached out to Marwa.

“The pullout from Afghanistan was so chaotic and so many people were trying to get out,” she said. “I thought at least I might be able to get this kid some medical attention.”

Within days, she connected Marwa with an international network of immigration attorneys, nurses and others working to help people get out. Early responders made sure Fawad got basic medical care and gave the family money for rent, food and firewood. Maine’s congressional delegation also helped, led by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

“It was like the Wild West,” Atkinson said. “You start to think you just have to keep asking and you’re bound to find someone to help.”

Two key people joined members of Fawad’s rescue team in early October 2021.

One was Tom, 48, a U.S. Army sergeant and communications specialist stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who has served in the Middle East. The Press Herald agreed not to use his last name to protect contacts in Afghanistan he’s still working with to get people out because they might be targeted or killed by the Taliban.


Fawad, with Tom, an Army sergeant who was a key member of the team that brought Fawad to the U.S. for surgeries in Delaware. Contributed photo

Through his connections in the military, U.S. government agencies and organizations working in Afghanistan, Tom has helped more than 350 Afghans and American citizens leave the country, including 22 at the height of the U.S. withdrawal.

“These were people who were struggling, and many of them worked directly with U.S. forces,” he said. “I just have a way of getting myself in front of the right people and I don’t let go.”

Tom made a promise to Marwa when he agreed to help Fawad.

“I told her I wouldn’t give up until I exhausted every resource or I got him out,” he said.

About the same time, Dr. E.J. Caterson, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Nemours Children’s Hospital, signed on to help Fawad at no cost. The family has since been approved for Medicaid coverage.

Caterson previously taught at Harvard Medical School, was the director of craniofacial surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and responded to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.


Caterson specializes in facial transplants and has volunteered across the world, working with aid groups such as Operation Smile, the Defense Department at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Trauma Critical Care Team of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

He downplays his part in Fawad’s rescue.

“My role was easy,” he said. “I was asked to do what I do on a daily basis.”

Atkinson is grateful.

“I struck gold when I found Tom and E.J.,” she said. “I’m just this little attorney in Damariscotta, Maine. It’s just good fortune that I found them.”



Tom kept his promise to Marwa.

He worked every connection he had, trying to find a State Department official to look at Fawad’s case. Finally, in December 2021, someone in the Department of Homeland Security agreed to review the family’s documentation, which had been meticulously gathered by Marwa and Atkinson.

Dr. E.J. Caterson, Fawad’s surgeon. Courtesy Nemours Children’s Health

Last July, Tom told Fawad’s parents to start preparing to leave, get their COVID-19 vaccinations and complete required medical tests. Within a month, they were granted conditional humanitarian parole with refugee status. They flew to Qatar on Aug. 23 and touched down at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Oct. 3.

Tom was there to greet them with hugs.

“It was like a huge release of emotion,” he said. “It was really happening. They were here.”

While Fawad had his first surgeries, the family stayed at a Ronald McDonald House.


In the first operation, Caterson discovered that doctors in Afghanistan had installed titanium plates that were chronically infected and blocking Fawad’s airway. He removed the plates and screws and rebuilt Fawad’s nasal support structure using bone taken from the outer layer of his skull. In the second, he removed a heavily scarred area below Fawad’s left eye and replaced it with a skin graft from his collarbone.

Both surgeries went well, Caterson said, but Fawad likely will need several more in the next few years, including repairs to his tear ducts and the globe of his left eye.

“Somebody asked for help and I don’t know how to say no,” Caterson said. “I’ve gotten a lot out of this experience. You can’t believe what I’ve gotten out of this.”


Fawad and his family have expressed their gratitude repeatedly.

“Zohra said they had no hope and no chance and they put their trust in me,” Tom said. “We came through as a team and we got it done.”


Fawad, right, after two surgeries, and his brother, Emran, left, on January 25 in Wilmington, Del., with Tom, an Army sergeant who was a key member of the team that brought Fawad to the U.S. for surgeries. Contributed photo

Tom has formed close ties with the family and continues to assist them, working with community volunteers in Wilmington who recently helped them move into an apartment. On Wednesday, he helped the parents register the boys in school. And he set up an online fundraiser at GoFundMe.com for the family. They’re considering moving to Maine.

Atkinson continues to help Maine families get relatives out of Afghanistan. Many are trapped without passports, which now cost as much as $1,400 each in Kabul, she said. Travel visas seem to be granted randomly, as if U.S. officials use a dart board to decide who can come to America.

She remains hopeful and persistent, knowing that the next person she asks might make all the difference.

“This story doesn’t end with Fawad,” she said. “The connections we made on his case are really significant.”

Malia, Fawad’s aunt in Portland, is proud of her daughter’s role in rescuing her young cousin.

Milad, 11, and Marwa, 17, pause as they talk about their cousin Fawad, who was shot in the face as he tried to evacuate Afghanistan. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I don’t speak English and my sons are all younger,” she said, “so Marwa has been my support system and has helped me a lot.”


Despite some lengthy classroom absences and a heavy course load, Marwa has maintained a 3.8 average in high school. She previously served as a student representative to the Portland Board of Education.

“She is a splendid student and an even better human being,” Casco Bay Principal Derek Pierce said.

Marwa and her family have yet to visit Fawad in Delaware, though they hope to make the trip soon. The family is doing better, she said, but they remain traumatized. Fawad, now 8, is quieter and he doesn’t smile as much as he used to.

“He is a very tough kid, but it’s been very hard for him,” she said. “This whole thing has really affected him mentally.”

For now, Marwa is focused on graduating and applying to colleges. She wants to be a doctor, possibly a psychiatrist, a field she’s come to value even more given her family’s experiences.

“There seems to be a lot of people in need of help,” she said.

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