One last hug. I bent down and wrapped my arms around the small, bony frame of the 12-year-old Afghan boy. "Good-bye, Nasir, always remember I love you."
The words seemed terribly inadequate, but it didn't matter. He wouldn't have understood anyway, and I wasn't sure I did. I just knew Nasir and his friend, Halima, had touched my life so deeply that I could never forget them or their country.
It was the end of May when I had greeted Nasir and Halima for the first time at Los Angeles International Airport. As a friend of Wayne Larsen, a member of the Committee for a Free Afghanistan who was to serve as host for these children, I had been invited to help entertain them while they were in California for medical help and therapy. I was a full-time student at UC Irvine, but I didn't want to miss this chance. Classes would have to wait.
Nasir and Halima, 11, had just flown in from Denver where they had undergone reconstructive surgery at Mercy Hospital under the sponsorship of Project Wounded, a volunteer organization founded in 1984 to bring wounded Moujahedeen guerillas and civilians from Afghanistan to hospitals in the United States. After the press conference at the airport, I noticed Halima smiling shyly at me from behind the interpreter. Then Nasir, after hesitating a moment, walked up to me with his awkward limp, gave me a big "western" handshake, and said, "Hello, how are you?"--which exhausted his entire English vocabulary. The ice had been broken. We would be friends from then on.
A Trip to the Beach
Later that afternoon, I took the two Afghan children to the beach at Coronal del Mar. Their trip had been tiring, and now it was time for fun. Halima had her shoes off first and dashed toward the water. Nasir tried to follow, but his right foot sank in the sand. His mutilated calf was not strong enough to lift the foot out and set it down again fast enough to run. He took my hand, but refused adamantly any further assistance. I felt his intense frustration at not being able to make his body obey his mind, but even more powerfully, I felt him rejoice in Halima's delight. It was a pattern I would see repeated many times in the days ahead.
The water was cold. Halima and Nasir squealed with joy as the waves crashed along the shore and sent foam lapping at their feet. Suddenly the sound of an approaching Coast Guard helicopter drowned out the laughter of the children. Nasir froze as he watched it come closer. Halima's laughs turned to cries of alarm as she ducked her head and threw her arms around me.
A few minutes later, sitting on the beach, they described--through an interpreter--the Soviet helicopter attack on their villages that had left Nasir without part of his calf and Halima's arm and chest deformed by napalm burns. But the spoken details seemed an anticlimax after the terror I had seen on their faces as they relived the experience in front of me. That image is permanently etched in my mind. Like Nasir and Halima, I, too, will never forget.
During the next few weeks, I saw again and again the courage and compassion of these two children--mostly in mundane things. And mostly in Nasir because Halima--her treatment here complete--stayed only a few days in California.
He Had a Concern for Others
Nasir was always concerned with the needs of others. Once we were playing ball, and he motioned to me to trade places with him. When I asked why, he pointed to the sun indicating he didn't want me to have the sun in my eyes. At meal times, he would never admit to being hungry until he was sure everyone else was hungry, too. One evening after we had returned home from an exhausting day at Disneyland, I noticed that Nasir had disappeared. I found him in his room crying. He told me his leg hurt. He had gone to his room so he wouldn't be seen crying and thus spoil the evening for others. No one so giving and so constantly joyous should have to suffer, I thought to myself--and I cried, too.
He had been through such hardship in his young life, yet there was no hardness in him. There was no hatred, either--only love. In him I thought I saw an answer to the needs of humanity. I wanted to be like Nasir.
I was feeling that very strongly when we said goodby in front of his temporary home. Breaking away from my embrace, he ran to the car, his gimpy leg supporting him much better than it had when he arrived. He was happy. Why shouldn't he be? He was going home. The irony gripped my heart. He was a refugee in Pakistan. He had no home, not even a country. All his family had was a tent in a country that didn't want them. He had told me all about his life at the refugee camp. He had said it was not a good place. That there was not much food and no water. He told me they walked for miles for a pot of dirty water.