Afghani kids visit for medical help and fun

Najib was bicycling near his home in Afghanistan in 2009 when a bomb exploded, killing one of his younger brothers who was riding beside him.

Shrapnel blinded Najib in his left eye. His immune system soon began to attack his right eye.

Najib, then 15, got help that year from a Lake Norman eye doctor through Solace for the Children. The local nonprofit organization has provided medical, dental and optical services to children in need since 1997.

The doctor injected steroids that maintained Najib's 20/15 vision, and Najib received a pair of bullet-resistant glasses.

Twenty-one children and three interpreters from Afghanistan are in the Lake Norman area again this summer, spending six weeks with host families through Solace for the Children. The organization has also expanded to Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Fla.

Najib, now 17, is staying with Doug and Joy Steele of Mooresville and their daughter, Shelby, who turns 18 on Thursday and also volunteers with the group.

He speaks excellent English and is interpreting for children who speak only Pashto. He and the rest of the group arrived June 21. They're getting checkups and treatment for free, because the doctors donate their services.

One boy will have his club feet repaired, another his cleft palate.

Sharifullah, 12, is scheduled to have his cleft lip fixed during outpatient surgery at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. (Solace for the Children identifies the youths only by their first names to protect their identities and those of their families back home in the war-torn country.) He is staying with Russell and Julie Nickerson of Huntersville and their three children.

The family also is hosting Maiwand, 9, who complained of pain in his ears and mouth before a visit to Dr. Brent Crawford, a Huntersville dentist. The problem was cause by the boy's ears being backed up with wax; he is now pain-free.

The first child the Nickersons hosted four years ago was a 6-year-old girl, "all skin and bones," Russell Nickerson told me. By the end of her visit she had gained a healthy 20 pounds.

Russell's initial apprehension about hosting a child - his wife "was gung-ho from the start," he said - turned quickly into pure joy. "It was honestly life-changing," he said.

Members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan recommend the children who come here through the nonprofit, which has an office in that country.

The visiting girls and boys have lots of fun, as I saw last week at the Carrigan Farms quarry on N.C. 150 East. Najib and other kids leaped off rocks into the water. All wore life vests as they swam, kayaked and canoed.

They played volleyball and had lunch provided by the men's group at Williamson's Chapel United Methodist Church. Carrigan Farms gave use of the quarry.

Also on tap in the weeks ahead are visits to Bounce U in Charlotte, the Lake Norman YMCA in Cornelius, Triple Cross Ranch in Mooresville and George Pappas's Victory Lanes in Mooresville. A farewell party will be July 30 at YMCA Camp Harrison in Boomer. The youths also attend weekly peace-building sessions.

Before he plunged into the water, Najib told me Solace for the Children has given him hope.

He once considered quitting school to work as a market vendor to help support his family, he said. Now he plans to study economics or medicine.

"It's meant a big change in my life," he said. "It's changed the way I think."