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One Afghan Girl's Healing Journey To The U.S.

Sep 21, 2012
Originally published on September 21, 2012 9:09 pm

There is limited medical infrastructure in war-torn Afghanistan, so severely wounded children are sometimes brought to the U.S. for medical care. Doctors in America say that for one little girl, her struggle to stay alive for three years until finding her way from central Afghanistan to a hospital in Los Angeles is nothing short of a miracle.

Her name is Arefa, and she's 6 years old. Like a lot of girls her age, she loves coloring, animals and ice cream. But this small girl in Hello Kitty shoes is from a nomadic tribe in Afghanistan, and for her entire life, she's known nothing but war.

When she was 3, her family's tent in Afghanistan was engulfed in flames from an IED. She was severely injured, suffering third-degree burns over much of her body and a life-threatening wound on the top of her head. Her family kept her alive for three years with very little medical attention.

"As the family moved from place to place, they often spoke of the wounds of the child, and this finally reached the ears of someone who told them Americans might help," Patsy Wilson of Solace for the Children writes in an email to NPR.

When U.S. troops saw the girl earlier this year, they got in touch with Solace for the Children, a group that has been working to bring wounded children of war to the U.S. for medical treatment.

"Some soldiers found her and said she was in a lot of pain still," says Jami Valentine, who along with her sister, Staci Freeman, have been Arefa's host family in Southern California since June.

Neither Arefa's mother, who was also injured in the blast, nor her father came with her to the U.S., as parents of children involved with the group do not make the trip with their kids.

Valentine says at first she didn't think she was up to the task. And then she saw Arefa's picture.

"Somehow her eyes connected with me even through the pictures. And it was this picture of sadness and strength all the same time, and I thought, 'How could I say no to this little girl?' " Valentine says.

She says that according to Arefa's doctor, it was just in time. "He has a very tender spot for her because he feels like she's unique, she's special, because medically she shouldn't be here," Valentine says.

When she arrived in the U.S., Arefa needed skin-graft surgery for the top of her head. The sisters recall the morning when she was able, for the first time, to touch her head and not feel pain.

"She laughed like this kind of joy laugh, and then she said, 'Thank you, doctors, and thank you, Staci and Jami,' " Freeman says.

Valentine says the girl is a continuing source of amazement. For instance, she marvels at the amount of English Arefa learned in just three months. "We were sitting in the car one day, and out the blue she goes, 'Come on, let's go!' " Valentine says. "It makes me laugh. It catches me off guard every time."

Healing takes many forms. Her host family says the night terrors have thankfully ceased, but they still closely monitor the television. One day early in her stay, a news story came on that showed soldiers with guns. "We couldn't turn the channel fast enough," Valentine says.

In her native Pashto and frantic pantomime, Arefa told them her story of what happened the day of the blast.

"Staci and I would sit, and we would listen, and we would just feel brokenhearted. We know she was unleashing everything she'd been through," Valentine says.

Arefa is scheduled to return to her family in Afghanistan soon.

"There's an element where we desperately want for her to be united with her family, because she talks about them, and I know she misses them. And then there's this real reality where I feel our space is going to get really quiet," Valentine says. "So somehow it all combines together, so I have no doubt it's going to be very sad."

Arefa will still need medical care. The fingers on her hands are disfigured, and scar tissue prevents her from being able to close her eyes when she sleeps. And she returns to an uncertain future in her war-torn homeland.

The women caring for Arefa see that the little girl — who only knew war and who was in pain for half of her life — is experiencing a childhood that she has fully embraced. While in California, she has grown to love swimming, the beach and her nearby playground.

"She walks though each day with joy," Valentine says.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than a decade of war has taken its toll on the people of Afghanistan, especially the children. Because the country's medical infrastructure is so limited, severely wounded children are sometimes brought to the U.S. for medical care. From Los Angeles, Gloria Hillard tells the story of one young victim of war.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: There have been a few changes at the home of Jami Valentine and Staci Freeman. Stuffed animals have taken their rightful place on the furniture and these days, the two sisters spend a lot of time at the playground.

JAMI VALENTINE: What are we going to do at the park today, Arefa-jan? What do you want to go on?

AREFA: The swing.

VALENTINE: The baby swing or the big swing?

AREFA: The baby swing.

VALENTINE: The baby swing, okay.

HILLARD: Like a lot of six-year-olds, Arefa also loves coloring animals and ice cream. But this small girl in Hello Kitty shoes and sitting on the couch is from a nomadic tribe in Afghanistan. For her entire life she has known nothing but war.

VALENTINE: Some soldiers found her and said she was in a lot of pain still - it happened three years ago.

HILLARD: Three years ago an IED explosion engulfed her family's tent in flames. When U.S. troops found Arefa earlier this year, she was in severe pain. Third degree burns had scarred her face, arms, hands and left the top of her head an open bleeding wound. Solace For The Children, a nonprofit group, went to work. Jami Valentine says at first she didn't think she was up to the task and then she saw Arefa's picture.

VALENTINE: Somehow her eyes connected with me even through the pictures, and it just was like this picture of sadness and strength all at the same time. And I thought, how could I say no to this little girl?

HILLARD: By navigating the stars, Arefa's father brought his daughter to the people who would take her on the journey of her life, from central Afghanistan to the other side of the world in Los Angeles. Valentine says according to the U.S. doctor who has been treating Arefa, it was just in time.

VALENTINE: He has a very tender spot for her because he feels like she's unique, she's special because medically she shouldn't be here.

HILLARD: Arefa would need skin graft surgery for the top of her head. The sisters recall the morning when she was able for the first time to touch her head and not feel pain.

VALENTINE: She went, no hurt. And she laughed, like this like kind of joy laugh and then she said, thank you, doctors and thank you Staci and Jami.

HILLARD: Each morning still requires a fresh dressing for her head. The bandages have become a counting game.

VALENTINE: Okay, ready Freddie? One...

AREFA: Two, three, four, five.

VALENTINE: Five.

HILLARD: Valentine, who is a teacher, says the pint-sized child is a continuing source of amazement. For instance, the amount of English she's learned in just three months.

VALENTINE: We were sitting in the car one day and out of the blue she goes, come on, let's go. It makes me laugh. It catches me off guard every time, just these phrases. Come on, baby.

AREFA: Come on, baby.

VALENTINE: Come on, baby. And whoa, Nellie.

AREFA: Whoa, Nellie.

HILLARD: Healing takes many forms. Her host family says the night terrors have thankfully ceased but they still closely monitor the television. One day early in her stay...

VALENTINE: A news story came on and we couldn't turn the channel fast enough and it showed soldiers with guns.

HILLARD: In her native Pashto, and frantic pantomime, Arefa told them her story.

VALENTINE: Staci and I would sit and we would listen and we would just feel broken hearted. We knew she was unleashing everything that she had been through in the event.

You like that color? You like blue?

AREFA: Yes.

HILLARD: During our interview, Arefa sat next to us coloring Minnie Mouse in various shades of purple. Soon she will be going back to her family in Afghanistan.

VALENTINE: There's an element where we desperately want for her to be united with her family because she talks about them and I know she misses them. And then there's this real reality that I feel like our space is going to get really quiet. So somehow, it all combines together. So I have no doubt that it's going to be very sad.

HILLARD: Arefa will still need medical care. The fingers on her hands are disfigured and scar tissue prevents her from being able to close her eyes when she sleeps. And she returns to an uncertain future in her war torn homeland.

VALENTINE: You want to go on - oh, two are open. No one's using them.

HILLARD: The morning began with a promise of a visit to the park. Leading the sprint to the swing set was Arefa.

AREFA: I now swing. Okay?

VALENTINE: Okay you ready?

AREFA: Ready.

VALENTINE: One second.

AREFA: Okay. Big.

VALENTINE: Big push. One. More? Two.

HILLARD: There were other children on the swings this day but the only sound of laughter was from the girl with pink sunglasses and a bandaged head. Counting to ten, reaching for the stars.

(LAUGHTER)

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.