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Local family brings Afghan boy back to Charlotte for new prosthetic leg

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Sherrills Ford

John Fortin imagined the worst when he bid farewell to a 9-year-old boy two years ago and put him on a plane bound for Afghanistan.

It was likely they would never meet again, but 60-year-old Fortin was more worried about sending the disabled boy back to the same village where a roadside bomb blew off his leg in 2009.

The Fortin family, who live northwest of Charlotte in Catawba County, had volunteered to take in Sayedgull (pronounced SAY-gull) in 2011, after a local charity arranged for him to get a free prosthetic leg in Concord.

He stayed only four months, but the Fortins grew so fond of the boy that they held a family vote and decided to do whatever it took to keep him safely out of Afghanistan – even if that meant bypassing charities and using their own money.

And so they have.

John, Zoe Tasker and their two children won a small victory this summer when Sayedgull was granted a medical visa, allowing him to return to Charlotte for a new prosthetic leg.

His stay is temporary, but for the Fortins, it’s a sign that they may yet accomplish what seemed impossible two years ago: Making the boy a member of their family.

Stakes are high

Their plan is to get Sayedgull an education visa, so he can live with them in Charlotte long enough to finish college. Sayedgull says he then wants to return home and help rebuild his war-torn country.

But there’s more at stake than just his education.

The opium-rich Helmand Province of Afghanistan where Sayedgull lives is a stronghold for the Taliban. Villagers who cooperate with U.S. forces have been executed or mutilated, including having hands or feet cut off.

“Nobody knows who the Taliban is. They look like regular people walking down the street, but with guns hidden,” Sayedgull says, pretending to shove a pistol in the back of his pants. “They come to your home at night and shoot you while you are asleep for talking to Americans.”

Bad things have already happened to members of his family, due in part to Sayedgull’s first trip to Charlotte. So the Fortins took the drastic measure of getting the boy admitted to an all-girls boarding school in Kabul.

“They have reason for worry,” says Shabana Basij-Rasikh, president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) where Sayedgull is enrolled. “You never know who can access things online and the consequences can be quite deadly. It’s difficult for an American to understand.”

SOLA’s campus is not a secret in Kabul, she says, but it does keep a low profile. Explosions have happened near the campus on multiple occasions during Sayedgull’s stay there.

As to why a boy was admitted into an all-girls school, Basij-Rasikh credits an email from the Fortins. “They were pleading for help and it brought me to tears,” she says.

The school has since discovered what the Fortins saw in Sayedgull.

He was placed in private winter classes with 80 other first-graders in 2011 and by the end of the school year was ranked fourth in the class. He volunteered to stay behind and study during the school’s off-season, which allowed him to skip second grade.

Sayedgull’s parents were impressed enough that they backed off plans for Sayedgull’s arranged marriage.

The engagement had been announced just weeks after he returned from Charlotte in 2011. He was 9 at the time.

Learning about holidays

It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday and Sayedgull is enjoying that most American of activities: a boys’ road trip to the barbershop.

In this case, it’s the Kilted Buffalo in Huntersville where manager Jenny Monnin makes it a point to open an hour early for Sayedgull’s visits. With him is John Fortin and son Ronald Tasker, who is 15.

All three have a disability, with John in early retirement because of a neurological disorder and Ronald in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy.

“They all face challenges on a daily basis and I think this is why they have opened their hearts to Sayedgull,” says Monnin, clipping at Ronald’s hair.

Sayedgull, who she says is picky about his hair, is now auditing third-grade classes at Phoenix Montessori Academy in Davidson. It’s clear he’s becoming more American, referring to Ronald as “dude” while they argue.

The two act like brothers, having bonded over video games, ice cream and an ongoing debate about who is more the ladies man.

Ronald says there is much about the United States that baffles Sayedgull. For instance, why Americans say “give me a second” when they mean much longer and why we eat food that is considered bad for us.

“If I tell him something is not good for him to eat all the time, he’ll ask me: ‘Then why do Americans make it and tell us to buy it? I thought Americans were supposed to be good,’” Ronald says laughing.

The Fortins are also discovering how difficult it is to explain Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas to a boy from a Muslim culture.

Sayedgull will be here long enough to celebrate all three and he has settled on a Batman costume for his first-time trick-or-treating. He’s going to be escorted by their 12-year-old daughter, Brina.

“He has so many questions, like whether or not you put the costume on as soon as you get up in the morning and wear it all day,” says John Fortin.

“And imagine explaining Santa. We first had to tell him about Santa and then we told him Santa is not real. We did that because he’s attending a school with other boys, and can you imagine how it would go with him talking about Santa like he was real?”

As for Thanksgiving, their best explanation so far is that you cook all day and eat for 10 minutes.

He’s having the most problems understanding that one.

A new leg in America

No one is sure of Sayedgull’s age, his last name or when to celebrate his birthday.

His family is impoverished in the extreme, with all 12 of them living in a single-room home.

Sayedgull says he was 6 when a roadside bomb took his left leg.

The Mooresville-based charity Solace for the Children brought him to Charlotte to get a new leg, but that was only after he won the hearts of Americans at a military hospital near his village.

He did this without the knowledge of his parents, who thought he was simply out playing with other children, says John Fortin.

“Sayedgull, on his crutches, was walking to the military hospital every day, where they would ask what he wanted. And he would say through an interpreter: ‘I want you to help me with my leg’,” says Fortin, who is helping Sayedgull write a journal.

“He just kept going back, day after day. They starting giving him food and water and then started letting him on to the base. He eventually talked to a medic, who knew about Solace for the Children and got them involved.”

One day, Sayedgull went home and informed his parents that he was going to America to get a new leg. They were convinced he was lying until the medic told them otherwise.

“He did all this on his own: An 8-year-old! You ask why are we helping, but how can we not?” Fortin says.

Hanger Inc.’s Faith Prosthetics Clinic in Concord provided him with a leg in 2011 and has offered to build a new leg for free this year.

Prosthetic specialist Steve Overcash notes Sayedgull came back to the United States this summer five inches taller and 41 pounds heavier. That meant he walked lopsided into Overcash’s office for their first visit in July.

Had the boy not been brought back by the Fortins on a medical visa, he could have suffered spinal damage, Overcash said.

“When I first helped him, I did it as a favor to another doctor,” Overcash says. “But the first time Sayedgull smiled at me, I knew I was going to take care of the little guy as long as I can.”

What happens now?

Sayedgull must go back to Afghanistan, as much as John Fortin and Zoe Tasker want to fight it.

The Fortins recently applied for a six-month extension of the medical visa, but they’re coming to grips with the reality that it will take much longer to get an education visa.

Zoe says it will be like losing a son for the second time.

“He has taught us a lot about love, even though we often didn’t speak the same language,” she says. “The giggle. The smile. The sense of humor. When he laughs, you can hear it all over the house. That’s a language anyone can understand.”

John Fortin says the family is going to make the most of their time together with countless new experiences for Sayedgull.

They recently showed him the ocean for the first time, with a trip to North Myrtle Beach. He hopped into the water on one leg, got hit by three waves in succession, and learned the hard way that sea water tastes horrible.

Earlier this year, Sayedgull’s parents traveled 15 hours from their village to the SOLA campus in Kabul, where they talked with the Fortins via Skype about Sayedgull’s trip back to Charlotte.

Sayedgull’s mother cried because she believes her son will never come back. But the boy’s 77-year-old father, whose name is being kept secret, looked into the camera and asked John a question that pierced his heart.

“Why didn’t you keep him in America the first time?” he said. “I want my son to get an education. I don’t know how this (laptop) works, but I’d like to put him in this machine and send him back to you.”

Fortin realized it wasn’t that the old man didn’t want his son.

It was that he loved the boy so much that he was willing do the right thing, no matter how much it hurt.

John Fortin knows exactly how he feels.

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