Lake Norman & Mooresville

Solace for Children is joy for caregivers

What began as a desire to offer free eye care to young children from Afghanistan has resulted in an inspiring journey for two local doctors.

Amanda Barker-Assell, 33, and her husband, Michael Assell, 36, both doctor of optometry, practice at Advanced Family Eye Care in Denver. Hearing through their church, Denver United Methodist Congregation, of a program called Solace for the Children, they determined to volunteer their expertise. At the time, however, they could hardly have foreseen the life-changing journey on which their decision would take them.

The mission of Solace for the Children is to bring children from Afghanistan in need of medical care to America for a period of six weeks during the summer. Each child is sponsored by a church and family in the community. Once involved with the program, the Assells decided to sponsor a child as well. Then they agreed that hosting two children would provide peer companionship for each, and so in June of 2009, they opened their Denver home to Nagar Azizulah, a 7-year-old girl from Kabul, and Khaleda Nader, an 11-year-old girl from the village of Cares, outside of Kabul.

Khaleda has returned after her initial visit to stay with the Assells for longer term medical care.

Nagar and Khaleda are from different Muslim tribes that don't ordinarily interact, so having them stay together in the same household accomplishes one of the objectives of Solace for the Children, "Planting seeds of tolerance and understanding amongst Afghan children, one person at a time."

The organization, as explained in its Mission Statement published on its website, "is committed to demonstrating God's love by providing a framework for ecumenical mission efforts to deliver medical, dental, optical care and emotional and educational fundamentals to children in need." The children may attend services at a mosque in Charlotte and receive support from local Muslim families. No attempts are made to convert or evangelize.

Nagar had been thought to be suffering seizures, and needed very extensive dental work. Khaleda has a genetic blood disorder called thalessemia, which is rare in the U.S. but is more common in Afghanistan and Mediterranean countries. There is no cure for thalessemia. The treatment requires regular blood transfusions, due to an excess of iron that results in the blood not being able to carry sufficient oxygen for the body's needs.

Khaleda's father, an auto mechanic, had been the source of her transfused blood, but eventually was unable to continue as a donor, requiring her family to buy blood for each transfusion, a financial hardship.

Khaleda and Nagar returned to Afghanistan in August, but although the six weeks of treatment in the U.S. had helped Nagar, the Assells were reluctant to see her go. They immediately set out to find a way to bring her back to the U.S. for additional medical care. In the meantime, Amanda Assell flew to New York to attend a thalessemia conference, hoping to learn more about the condition and find ways to help Khaleda get treatment. Their efforts paid off, and Khaleda returned to the Assell home on a long-term medical visa a week before Thanksgiving.

Hearing about a thalessemia specialist practicing at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, they were able to take her there for a consultation and a treatment plan. Khaleda is currently involved in a trial program for the treatment of iron overload blood disorders at Oakland Children's Hospital in California.

When she first arrived in Denver, Khaleda, whose native language is Farsi, had never been to school and spoke no English. Her parents are illiterate. After living in the U.S. less than a year, she is very nearly fluent in English and is teaching the Assells a bit of Farsi. Looking younger than her 12 years because of the blood disorder, she is shy and bright. She is home-schooled by Mike and Amanda, with the help of family and church members.

"It's true what they say," said Barker-Assell. "It takes a village to raise a child."

Khaleda and the Assells are able to communicate with her family (mother, father, and brothers Wassa, 13, and Pudia, 7) by cell phone (theirs is charged through use of a generator), as well as through Skype. To do this, her family must travel by public transportation to Kabul in order to access a computer at a "safe house."

When she arrived in the U.S., Khaleda had never ridden a bike and never swam, both activities she now enjoys. She also loves to go shopping and to pajama parties on Friday nights.

The sound of fireworks scares her, as a result of her experiences back home.

"She's kind of like a lot of ages wrapped up into one person," said Assell.