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A Young Afghan War Survivor Touches Two American Lives

Arefa with Jami Valentine (left) and Staci Freeman. Arefa, who first stayed with the sisters while receiving medical care last year, came back to the U.S. this summer for follow-up treatment.
Gloria Hillard for NPR

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.

Arefa's not only a few inches taller now, her host family says, but is also a much goofier, more "dance-y" child than she was last year.
/ Gloria Hillard for NPR
Gloria Hillard for NPR
Arefa's not only a few inches taller now, her host family says, but is also a much goofier, more "dance-y" child than she was last year.

"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.

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