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Mon September 23, 2013

A Young Afghan War Survivor Touches Two American Lives

Originally published on Mon September 23, 2013 8:38 pm

When Staci Freeman and her sister Jami Valentine first took in a child ravaged by war in Afghanistan last year, Arefa was a 6-year-old in Hello Kitty shoes, who quickly turned the daily routine of changing her head bandages into a counting game.

When Arefa arrived in Los Angeles from central Afghanistan, three years after being injured, Freeman says, third-degree burns mapped her body, and her head was an open bleeding wound.

"When she came, she came crying and in pain and her head hurt," Freeman says.

For months Freeman and Valentine bore witness to her pain, sat vigil after surgeries and held her through both silent and excruciating screams. When Arefa had healed to the point where she could return to Afghanistan, the sisters hoped -- prayed — they would see her again.

"I think anytime I saw something with Afghanistan, and especially that had to do with kids, I just immediately ... would think of her. I'd just picture her little face and think, 'I pray it's not her. I pray it's not her family.' "

'A Much More Goofy Side'

The child they had grown to love left her fingerprints behind on everything, along with her drawings, an errant sock and the stuffed animals that couldn't fit into her suitcase. The sisters kept them all for her in a large box in the living room.

This summer, they were back on the furniture for Arefa's return.

Valentine says the child who returned this year had not only grown a few inches taller. "There's been a much more goofy side," she says. "She's been very wiggly and dance-y, and just funny and laughing a lot. So I feel she came back a different little girl, for sure."

Arefa was just 3 when she was badly burned after a rocket-propelled improvised explosive device engulfed her family's tent in flames. When U.S. doctors saw her they said it was a miracle she had survived the years following the attack.

Today, her most serious physical wounds are healed, but her emotional ones still glow in the dark.

"It's only at night that I remember ... this glimpse I have of what her life is like at home and ongoing," Valentine says. "She talks of being scared at night, of hearing helicopters, of waking up her dad, of crying — all of these things.

"So night is a time I kinda remember, this is a little girl who has walked through some hard times and is continuing to walk through hard and scary times."

Arefa still needs another surgery. Scar tissue prevents her from closing her eyes when she sleeps.

With U.S. Withdrawal, An Uncertain Future

Arefa, along with other children from Afghanistan, was brought here for medical assistance by the nonprofit Solace for the Children. As the planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, Valentine says it is becoming more difficult for the humanitarian organization to do its work.

"As things get worse, it's getting harder and harder for us to get visas for the kids. I just want to make sure that if I send her back, that she is in a spot where she can live a healthy life," Valentine says. "Because apart from everything else, I realize there's a very real chance that it just won't work for her to come again with everything going on in our world."

The sisters knew this visit would be a shorter stay, and Arefa's departure day arrived all too quickly. With her flight from Los Angeles International Airport leaving in three hours, Arefa sat atop a bright pink carry-on, clutching a stuffed dolphin she named Flower.

"We've been saying goodbye for about a solid week now," Valentine says. "And I talk about being sad and she talks about being sad."

At 40 minutes until departure, Arefa's host mothers are trying not to think about returning to their quiet apartment. Arefa likes to write notes, Freeman says, "so I think inevitably we'll probably be finding Post-it Notes and different things around the house with her little scribbling with her name on it."

When the boarding passes are finally issued, Arefa jumps into Valentine's arms, then Freeman's. These goodbyes are whispered. When tears start to roll down Arefa's face she buries her head in Jami's arms.

One of Arefa's favorite things to do is to run, along the beach or in the park. So maybe that's why, when Arefa grabbed the handle of her suitcase and looked back over her shoulder, the sisters smiled, waved and told her, "Run! Run fast!"

This time, she didn't look back.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last year, we brought you the story of a young victim of war; a 6-year old Afghan girl who was severely burned. She received life-changing medical treatment here in the U.S. The journey from central Afghanistan to Los Angeles changed her life, as well as the lives of the two women who cared for her.

Reporter Gloria Hillard has an update now on us Arefa's Story.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: When I first met Arefa last September, she was a six-year-old in Hello Kitty shoes who had turned the daily changing of her head bandages into a counting game.

STACI FREEMAN: OK. Ready, Freddy? One...

AREFA: Two, three, four, five.

HILLARD: Staci Freeman and her sister, Jami Valentine, had taken in a child ravaged by the war in Afghanistan. Freeman says when Arefa arrived, third-degree burns mapped her body and her head was an open bleeding wound.

FREEMAN: When she came, she came crying and in pain and her head hurt.

HILLARD: For months, they bore witness to her pain, sat vigil after surgeries, and held her through both silent and excruciating screams. When she had healed to where she could return to Afghanistan, they hoped, prayed, they would see her again.

FREEMAN: Yeah. I think anytime I saw something with Afghanistan, and especially that had to do with kids, like, immediately I would think of her. It's like I'd picture her little face and think, oh, you know, I pray it's not her. I pray it's not her family.

HILLARD: The child they had grown to love left behind her fingerprints on everything, along with her drawings and errant sock and the stuffed animals that couldn't fit into the suitcase. The sisters kept them for her in a large box in the living room. Today, they're back on the furniture.

(LAUGHTER)

AREFA: My tickle.

FREEMAN: Oh, are you tickling?

AREFA: Where's my little baby?

HILLARD: Jami Valentine says the child that returned this summer had not only grown a few inches taller...

JAMI VALENTINE: There's been a much more goofy side. She's been very wiggly and dancey and just funny and laughing a lot. So I feel like she came back a different little girl, for sure.

HILLARD: Arefa was just three when she was badly burned after a rocket propelled IED engulfed her family's tent in flames. When U.S. doctors saw her, they said it was a miracle she had survived those years.

Today, her most serious physical wounds are healed, but her emotional ones still glow in the dark.

VALENTINE: It's only at night that I remember. It's just this glimpse I have of what her life is like at home and ongoing. She talks ongoing of being scared at night, of hearing helicopters, of waking up her dad, of crying, all of these things. So night is a time that I kind of remember, oh, this is a little girl who has walked through some hard times and is continuing to walk through hard and scary times.

HILLARD: She still needs another surgery. Scar tissue prevents her from closing her eyes when she sleeps. Arefa, along with other children from Afghanistan, were brought here for medical assistance by the nonprofit Solace for the Children. Valentine says as the planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, it is becoming more difficult for the humanitarian organization to do its work.

VALENTINE: As things get worse, it's getting harder and harder for us to get visas for the kids. I just want to make sure that if I send her back, that she is in a spot where she can live a healthy life because I do realize apart from anything else, there's a very real chance that it just won't work for her to come again with everything going on in our world.

HILLARD: They knew this would be a shorter stay, and then the day arrived too quickly. The flight from LAX was leaving in three hours. Arefa sat atop a bright pink carry-on, clutching a stuffed dolphin she named Flower. Everyone wanted a picture of Arefa, but the 7-year-old wanted to look at the photo album Jami and Staci made for her.

VALENTINE: Oh, look at all the full ones you've got.

AREFA: Yeah.

VALENTINE: A few hoola-hoopies.

AREFA: Yeah, hoola-hoop.

VALENTINE: We've been saying goodbye for probably a solid week now and I talk about being sad and she talks about being sad.

HILLARD: And together, they had been practicing something.

VALENTINE: What was it? You're strong...

AREFA: Strong and brave and happy.

VALENTINE: Yes. Strong and brave, not scared, and happy. Yeah.

HILLARD: The plane is departing in 40 minutes and Arefa's host moms are trying not to think about their return to a quiet apartment.

FREEMAN: She loves notes. She likes to write notes, so I think inevitably we'll probably be finding Post-it Notes and different things around the house with her little scribbling with her name on it. Our house is hers, so...

HILLARD: The boarding passes are finally issued. Arefa jumps into Jami's arms and then Staci's. These goodbyes are whispered. When tears start to roll down Arefa's face, she buries her head in Jami's arms. The sisters remind her once again that she's brave and strong and happy. Arefa grabs the handle of her suitcase.

VALENTINE: Are you gonna hold Flower on the airplane and make sure he's buckled in safe?

HILLARD: One of Arefa's favorite things to do is to run, along the beach, in the park. So maybe that's why, when Arefa looked back over her shoulder, the sisters smiled, waved and told her to run - run fast.

VALENTINE: Keep running. Go, go, we gotta go. Hurry. Bye. Go.

HILLARD: This time, she didn't look back. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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