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Woman Says Tale of Afghan Orphans False

April 16, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Culver City woman who claimed hundreds of Afghan women and children are on their way to the United States now admits they don't exist. Speaking through her husband, she apologized for "building up the hopes in people wanting to adopt Afghan orphans."

Julie Fahrer's descriptions of needy orphans at a meeting last month spawned federal investigations and prompted scores of Afghan families across the United States to sign up for foster-care licenses, even though officials warned it was likely a hoax.

But Monday, her story collapsed as her husband revealed that Fahrer has a history of mental and emotional illness. Until a few days ago, Neal Fahrer said he thought the illness had been treated and believed his wife's statements that it was a "top-secret" military issue.

But after confronting her and chasing the same dead-end leads as authorities, he realized it was a fabrication. He has sought a psychological evaluation for her and will begin apologizing to the churches, friends and associates to whom she has lied.

"She created the orphans because of her emotional and mental illness," said Neal Fahrer, who spoke for his wife because he said she was in "no shape" to talk publicly. "She believed they existed, but they did not. My conclusion is that she has relapsed into a stressed emotional state of mind allowing these fantasies to exist for her."

For weeks, Julie Fahrer claimed the children's and women's arrival was a high-level government secret. Some people still believe these assertions, despite Julie Fahrer's admission she made the story up. The United Nations, Immigration and Naturalization Services, the U.S. State Department and the Afghan Embassy have denied knowledge of Fahrer or the orphans. The FBI is continuing its investigation, a spokeswoman said Monday.

"I am very taken aback," said Dr. Shamim Ibrahim, president and founder of a Muslim social-services agency. She attended Fahrer's adoption meeting.

"Everybody who was there, they all believed. If that is the truth that she is mentally ill, I need some proof."

In recent years, Julie Fahrer had created a new persona: that of a United Nations representative working with refugees through her organization, International Resources.

She held monthly workshops with actors--some professional, others aspiring--and, for a $15 application fee, promised to train them to become "drama therapists" who would provide mock-refugee experiences to doctors and psychologists on military bases and by traveling worldwide for the U.N. and helping refugees. None of these promises is true, Neal Fahrer said.

Julie Fahrer's former pastor, Joan Stock, said she witnessed the same pattern years ago when Fahrer made up stories to appear a sympathetic figure. "It's a fantasy; it's also a fabrication," she said. "She draws attention to herself as a compassionate, loving person. I think she is that, but she needs to exaggerate to draw attention to herself."

Neal Fahrer said his wife truly believed her fantasy until finally acknowledging that nobody would corroborate the story. "I think she had to believe it to put in all the effort," he said.

The Afghan-orphans story is a web of tales that Julie Fahrer went to lengths to make seem real. On several occasions, she told officials at University Christian Church--the church she rented space from--that children would be arriving and asked them to beef up security on the nights the orphans needed temporary housing. She even spent nights away from home--purportedly because she was greeting the children flown from Afghanistan by military transport.

Then last month, she gathered a group of local Afghans and interested colleagues for a meeting in a Van Nuys church. She told them that 529 Afghan women and orphans were in the United States or on their way and 45 of them had already been placed in homes stretching from Fresno to San Diego.

She passed out handwritten descriptions of several children. They were realistic, including tragic-sounding psychological and physical evaluations of children with "frequent crying episodes" or "severe scars."

The Afghan community immediately began mobilizing. Mohammad Daoud Abedi, an Afghan American who lives in Calabasas, sent an e-mail after attending the meeting with Julie Fahrer. The e-mail spread rapidly through Afghan and Muslim Internet message boards.

Hundreds of families responded, prompting calls to federal and local agencies.

Within a couple of weeks, local social-service groups began holding meetings in San Jose, San Diego, Garden Grove and Grenada Hills for prospective parents to begin foster-care licensing procedures.

The entire time, Julie Fahrer delivered no evidence of the children's existence. No one at the church saw the orphans.

Neal Fahrer described the past couple of weeks as "hell" as he confronted his wife of 32 years and took a difficult look at the facts.

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