Health & Family

The boy, the bomb and the new leg

The boy insists he's 11, but doctors in Charlotte say he's closer to 8 or 9. He doesn't know his last name, either. He comes from Afghanistan's violent Helmand Province near the Pakistani border, the world's largest opium-producing region, and home to most of the fighting between NATO and Taliban forces. Unimaginable things happen to children there.

"I heard a helicopter and there was an explosion," says Sayedgull (pronounced Si-gull) through an Afghani interpreter.

"And I start to run, but then I fall, because my leg, it is not there ..."

The interpreter pauses, searching for a word.

"It is hanging ... from a tendon."

Sayedgull's left leg was amputated in the hours that followed. He was about 6 years old, a fearless age for little boys. A stubborn age.

When he left the hospital months later, it was in his father's arms. He was not sure he'd ever walk again.

Yet Sayedgull was defiantly marching around Helmand on makeshift crutches when he came to the attention of a medical-aid charity in Mooresville this year.

The Americans promised to give him a new leg. So four months ago, Sayedgull came to Charlotte with a dream of standing on two legs again.

It could be a treacherous journey. Rumors of his visit to the United States could result in the Taliban harming his family, or even taking Sayedgull and executing him as a spy, say those familiar with the region's troubles.

Now, it's almost time for Sayedgull to return there, and the American family that took him in is worried.

What will happen to the little boy with the beautiful big brown eyes who has come to love peanut butter, video games and "Tom and Jerry" cartoons?

Building a leg

On a Wednesday in July, just after lunch, Sayedgull is grimacing and holding his stomach as he sits in the lobby of Concord's Faith Prosthetic-Orthotic Services.

This has become common during his trips to doctors and specialists around Charlotte, for a sensible reason.

He is car sick: one of countless new experiences the boy has faced since being brought here in June by the nonprofit Solace for the Children.

"Now, he's gotten where he can warn us," says John Fortin, a retiree serving as the boy's foster father. "Sometimes, I'm able to get off the road. Other times, you open the window and he sticks his head out as we go down the highway."

When a receptionist summons Sayedgull to a back office, the 70-pound boy grabs his crutches and wobbles down the hall, looking both determined and vulnerable.

Instinct makes every adult in the lobby want to reach out to him, even if they're not sure what to do.

"He's a very sad, very sorrowful little fellow," says Steve Overcash, the specialist custom-building the new leg.

"But he's so grateful. When I put on a temporary leg, the smile on his face was incredible: Ear to ear. I think everyone in the room got teary-eyed."

Overcash, who builds about 125 prosthetic legs a year, says he got involved in this because orthopedic surgeon Bryan Edwards of Cornelius asked him for "a favor."

The result is a bit of a riddle: How to build a prosthetic leg for a boy from the other side of the world, who'll surely outgrow it in as little as a year?

Sayedgull's face brightens when Overcash kneels and begins tinkering the temporary leg. He removes it, lengthens the rods, slips it back on, and then asks the boy to stand.

"How's that feel?" Overcash asks.

"Good!" Sayedgull says, using one of the few words he knows in English. "It good!"

The boy grins, ear to ear.

A violent place

Helmand Province, the U.S. military says, is the most dangerous place in Afghanistan, where shootings, roadside bombs and suicide bombs continue to target civilians and the military.

None of the nearly 200 Afghani children helped by Solace for the Children has been killed by the Taliban over the past 15 years.

But some Afghani families have been terrorized and parents forced into hiding, says Patsy Wilson, executive director of the agency, which has two paid staffers in that country and dozens of volunteers.

In one case, a boy was kidnapped when Taliban members learned Solace was taking his brother to the U.S. for treatment, she says.

The trip was called off, and his father convinced village elders that Chinese doctors were doing the work.

A lie, of course, but a necessary one, Wilson says.

"If someone finds out Sayedgull is here, he could absolutely be in danger," she says. "The parents from Helmand who trust us with their children are being extremely brave in standing up to the Taliban."

Interpreter Shekeb Qiamuddin, who is from the northern Afghani city of Herat, says Helmand is a province he avoids because of battles with the Taliban, a militant terrorist group that once ruled large parts of Afghanistan.

The interpreter says he's heard that the Taliban has roadblocks there and will take those who dress like Americans, lock them up and question them as spies. "When Sayedgull leaves, he can't take anything back with him," Qiamuddin says.

Going back, the boy will wear the same clothes he arrived in, made by his mother.

It was an improvised explosive device that cost Sayedgull his leg three years ago.

Four men standing nearby were blown to pieces. Everyone else panicked and ran.

Sayedgull sat there, knowing the noise would surely summon his father.

Qiamuddin interprets again as the boy finishes the story.

"I didn't pass out. I didn't feel anything. All I see was blood."

"When my father came, he tried to flag down a car, but nobody would stop to take me to the hospital, so he stood in the middle of the road. Finally, somebody stopped."

It was a five-hour drive to the hospital. How he survived it is anybody's guess.

Acts of kindness

Sayedgull's new leg will cost about $16,000, the equivalent of several years' rent for his family.

When you add in the plane tickets, room and board, medicines, etc., you have a miracle that could surpass $20,000.

There will be no bill.

Every penny is covered by donations of cash, expertise and services arranged by Solace, a charity devoted to helping Afghani kids get desperately needed medical care.

It has no paid staff in this country. Volunteers do much of the work, recruited through churches, clubs and friends of friends.

This year, Solace brought 73 Afghanis to the United States; 23 of them to the Lake Norman area, where specialists did brain surgery, fixed clubfeet, removed tumors and repaired hearts.

Members of U.S. military in Afghanistan refer most of the children to Solace, after becoming familiar with their stories during day-to-day contact.

Even in his garbled English, it's clear that Sayedgull likes Marines in general and a Navy corpsman named Mark Strutton in particular.

"In Sayedgull's initial application," Wilson says, "We were sent a great picture of this military guy, squatting down with his arm around Sayedgull, who is all dusty and dirty from playing with the military guys...The smiles are very telling."

The children typically come and go within six weeks, slipping into and out of places like Faith Prosthetics, Presbyterian Hospital, Lake Norman Regional and hospitals in other states.

Complications arise on occasion, like 12-year-old Sher Jan, who came this summer to have his clubfeet fixed. Doctors discovered he also had a heart condition. It was successfully repaired Friday.

Then there's Sayedgull.

Turns out he has a hole in one eardrum that has become infected. It was likely caused by the same explosion, doctors say.

The kid has had an earache for three years.

New to America

The name of Sayedgull's hometown is yet another thing he doesn't know.

Details of his life there seem harsh by American standards, but are common, if not traditional, among the region's poor families.

Thirteen people - two adults and 11 children - share a one-bedroom home with no indoor plumbing and no electricity.

No beds, either. Sayedgull says the family shares that one bedroom, sleeping on the floor.

His father is older and doesn't work, so the family is supported entirely by two brothers, a farmer and a police officer. They've been evicted multiple times for not paying the rent, "but we always find some place else," the boy adds.

The contrasts are many to his temporary home this summer on the banks of Lake Norman, where he has his own bedroom, his own bed and all the food he can eat.

John Fortin's home, 38 miles northwest of Charlotte in the Sherrills Ford community, is the perfect stage for showing off the United States: a big house with big rooms, big windows, big dock and big view of the lake through big trees.

There's an attention-hungry dog named Gracie and an obstinate cat named Moses.

Fortin, a former funeral director, says one of the first things he and his wife, Zoe Tasker, learned about Sayedgull is that he didn't take well to the word "no" or the concept of "timeout" in a corner.

"He'd pretty much been raised on the streets, doing what he wanted, and if we told him not to do something, he got mad and stayed mad the entire day," Fortin says. "I mean, he wouldn't say a word to you. He fumed."

The boy proved to be a quick learner with a wicked sense of humor.

"Hey, whatcha doin'?" began popping out of his mouth whenever he entered a room, mimicking Zoe. And Fortin's attempts at jokes got him labeled a "clown."

"Sayedgull says he's in the second grade," Fortin says, "so I asked him about his school. All he said was: 'School Afghanistan, no good.' And then he slapped himself in the face."

He also teases Fortin in a good-natured way, claiming he's going to take the car for a drive when no one's watching, or arrange for someone else to go back to Afghanistan in his place. Every night, there's a tug of war at bedtime, when Sayedgull pulls the covers over his head and dares Fortin to tickle him. Every night the boy loses the contest, his resistance dissolving in a fit of giggles.

The couple's children, Ronald and Brina, suggested taking in Sayedgull after they heard a Solace presentation at Williamson's Chapel United Methodist Church in Mooresville.

Ronald, 13, who has cerebral palsy, liked the idea of being "the hands and feet of the Lord." He also wanted to show an Afghani that Americans are good people.

"He's not what I thought he would be," says Ronald, who maneuvers the house in a wheelchair. "He didn't attack me. ... And he's funny."

The two have become like brothers, he says, except when it comes to the TV remote.

Boys are still boys, no matter where they come from.

On the lake

Of all our traditions, the most difficult to explain to a kid from Afghanistan is the "summer cookout," so Fortin and Tasker are showing by example at the moment.

Hot dogs, burgers, chips, swimming in the lake, TV blaring and nobody watching, adults in the kitchen, kids in the den, flies in the house.

It's the first week of August, a humid Thursday, and Sayedgull should be back in Afghanistan. But his leg is taking longer to finish, so he's among six Afghani kids staying behind.

Some cried when they were told they had to stay longer.

Not Sayedgull.

Everything about America frightened him three months ago. Now, he's mesmerized. Indoor waterparks, Chick-fil-A, Bruster's banana ice cream in a waffle cone, The Cartoon Network, yo-yos, raisins in little boxes; the sound of hundreds singing during Sunday church services.

Even something as simple as the family dog is fascinating, since dogs are feared by children and hunted by adults in Helmand, he says.

Among his more surprising likes, says Zoe Tasker, is an affinity for black-and-white reruns, like the '60s series "The Addams Family" and Westerns, "the older the better."

"My own kids don't even know what that stuff is," Tasker says.

Even stranger, says Brina, he'll spend two to three hours at a time watching the same recorded show, teaching himself English in the process.

"I'll walk into a room and it will be the same thing he was watching an hour ago, and he'll be laughing," Brina, 10, says. "He's not sure what they're saying, but he likes the funny parts."

Only broccoli and spicy Mexican salsa have met with his disapproval.

Sayedgull has clearly changed during his time in Charlotte.

At the cookout, he's the life of the party, playing video games in the den, telling stories with other Afghani kids on the deck, and singing Afghani pop songs to himself on the couch.

His English has improved, as he splices sentences together using combinations of "good" and "no good." He has also taken to calling Tasker "mom," which made her cry the first time.

It's only when everyone at the cookout goes swimming that he disappears.

The temporary leg has to come off before he can get in the water, so Sayedgull slips alone into a bedroom, sits on the bed and removes it.

He reappears in the yard minutes later, wobbling hurriedly on crutches once again.

Halfway down the pier, he throws the crutches down and hops the final 10 feet on one leg, leaping into the brown water with a giant splash.

Fortin stands alone on the bank, looking sad.

He's thinking about what it will be like for the boy to go back to all that poverty and violence. Then there's the whole idea of some kind of Taliban retribution against a kid.

It's starting to bother him. But most of all, he just doesn't want Sayedgull to leave.

"He's like a son," says Fortin. "But he already has a father who loves him very much and misses him."

Epilogue

It's been nearly four months - and 12 visits - since Sayedgull was fitted with a temporary leg. Since then, he has surprised everyone with his progress.

Not only did Sayedgull teach himself to walk without crutches in just days, but he's recently begun kicking soccer balls and walking backward.

"Most amputees never walk backwards," says Steve Overcash at Faith Prosthetics. "This is an amazing little boy, but that's understandable, given what he has survived."

Sayedgull has three more visits scheduled at Faith before he has to leave, and Overcash has a plan. He's making a special leg that will adjust as the boy grows, using parts donated by orthopaedics manufacturer Ossur. Overcash also plans to give Sayedgull spare parts to take with him, and a set of tools.

Overcash says he'll have it finished in two weeks, in time for Sayedgull to board a plane and head back to his family.

Fortin and Zoe Tasker know it's possible they may never see Sayedgull again.

"It will be heart wrenching," she says. "But our job was to love him while he was here, and then let him go."

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