Away from Afghanistan violence, kids have fun

By DAVID PERLMUTT | The Charlotte Observer | Published: June 17, 2013

Like any child, all the boy wanted to do Sunday was rifle through a bag of potato chips and jump into the water at Davidson College Lake Campus to swim with his new friends.

Instead, Sajad, a 6-year-old Afghan boy, was allowed to jump in but had to jump out to smile for a camera and tell his story to a reporter.

In December, Sajad was in his home in Afghanistan when a suicide bomber set off an explosion. Glass shards killed two siblings and damaged both of Sajad's eyes.

Weeks later, in January, he was flown to North Carolina by the Mooresville-based humanitarian group Solace for the Children and placed with host parents Muntazir and Sikina Somji and their three sons.

Sunday, after multiple surgeries to reattach retinas in both eyes, the boy -- facial scars still obvious beyond his constant smile -- was at a lake party with 20 other Afghan children brought to the Charlotte region. Here, they'll be treated for a menu of medical and dental problems and, for six weeks of summer, have fun away from a world where violence is a constant.

They'll live with host families, some for longer than six weeks. Some have returned, or will return, for continuing surgeries or treatments.

"They all have different stories, and each one gets to you," said Sandy Tabor-Gray of Davidson, coordinator of Solace's Lake Norman branch. "We have an opportunity to teach these children about peace on a foundation of ... looking after their medical needs."

Most arrived Wednesday and have been screened for medical and dental needs by doctors and dentists who donate their services. In six weeks, they'll go through six "peace-building" programs.

Sunday was reserved for fun.

New challenges

The group has operated since 1997, when it started raising money to bring children from Belarus in Eastern Europe, a country former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called one of the six "outposts of tyranny."

Solace, supported strictly by donations, worked with Belarusian children until 2007, when officials there began to limit what American doctors could do for them. They began sending children who had few or no medical needs.

"We saw that the doors were beginning to close to us," Tabor-Gray said. "So we started focusing on Afghanistan. The needs are big."

There are new challenges: The country is majority Muslim, and many Afghans have little trust for Americans.

But the parents of these children look beyond that.

"They come from very loving families," Tabor-Gray said. "They have to be loving to send their children around the world to get help. We all agree that if we can get Afghanistan more stable with a different kind of people in charge, it will be better for all of us."

Wants to help children

As the Afghan children began to arrive, the group started to expand, with chapters opening in Los Angeles; Spokane, Wash.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; and Southern Pines.

The children come from all over Afghanistan.

Of the 21 children in the current summer program, 13 are first-timers. Many are identified and brought to Solace by U.S. troops.

Sherjan, 14, first arrived in North Carolina in 2011.

He was selling food in the street to support his family. The Taliban wouldn't let him go to school. A Marine noticed his two clubbed feet and the pain they caused him.

The military put his family in touch with Solace.

Sherjan came initially to get his feet treated, but doctors found he had a heart condition and wouldn't operate until he got that repaired.

He had to go to Columbus for open-heart surgery. A doctor here fixed his feet.

Here he's found safety, and school. "People in my country think America is bad," Sherjan said. "I tell them that is not what I see. They are good people. They love their families, their children. They love other people in the world."

Now, he wants to return home to help children -- as he's been helped.

Concept of peace

Not all of the children are victims of war, but many, like Sajad, bring tragic stories.

Sajad was blind when he arrived in January.

"He had to feel his way around," said host parent Muntazir Somji, a Muslim who grew up in Tanzania in East Africa. "Today, after five months and a few surgeries, he's a pretty self-sufficient kid. He's pretty independent."

Both of Sajad's retinas have been reattached, but his eyes still lack lenses. He can see "fairly well" through his left eye; only shadows through his right, Somji said.

Now that he can see, he's begun to compare life in American to Afghanistan.

"Every now and then he'll tell us things about Afghanistan," Somji said. "When he saw the (Boston Marathon) explosion, you could tell he got scared. It brought a lot of stuff up.

"But, mostly, he's a happy kid. He grasps the concept of peace and he enjoys it."

So does 11-year-old Farida, who lost her left eye in an explosion that killed two brothers and a sister.

She'd returned to her family, when she developed a problem with the socket that was awaiting a prosthetic eye and returned in March to live with Asheli and Eric Thompson and their two young daughters.

Sunday, Farida swam and buried her legs in a hole she dug on the beach.

The Thompsons have taken her to Walt Disney World and will take her on their beach trip this summer.

"Farida's taught us that circumstances don't have to define you," Asheli Thompson said. "Despite all the trauma they've been through, these children just bounce right back."


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