The father’s request was simple, yet desperate.
Could Sean Roehrs, a captain in the Air Force stationed in Afghanistan, help the man’s 8-year-old son who had a mental disability fly from war-torn Afghanistan to the United States for medical treatment?
“I said, ‘Let me see what I can do,’” Roehrs said.
So began the unlikely journey that brought Khaled – a shy, lovable Afghan boy who speaks only a few words, has seizures and needs constant care – to Olympia.
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“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Roehrs, who grew up in Olympia.
But before Khaled would attend a kindergarten class at Pioneer Elementary School, before he’d receive medical exams that determined that his disability was genetic and couldn’t be corrected by surgery, Roehrs contacted people for months about Khaled coming to the United States. Solace for Children, a relief agency based in North Carolina, was a major player in opening the door for Khaled coming here.
Khaled’s father is Col. Shooresh, the Afghan air corps detachment commander for Herat, Afghanistan. Shooresh was in his office when Roehrs shared the news about his son getting to come to the U.S.
“He got down on his knees and kept saying to me, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” Roehrs said.
Overwhelmed with emotion and filled with a sense of relief, the rugged Air Force helicopter pilot cried.
“He cried. Then I cried,” said Roehrs, who served one year in Afghanistan and is now stationed in New Mexico.
But before Khaled came to Olympia, Roehrs wanted Shooresh to understand that his son might not return any different. He wanted the father to have realistic expectations.
“I explained we may not be able to do anything,” Roehrs said. “But I want him to know that as a father, he had done everything he could possibly do.”
In July, Khaled and his 18-year-old brother, Abed, moved into the Olympia home of Roehrs’ parents, Steve and Cindy. The day after the brothers arrived, they were outside playing in the backyard, and Abed asked an insightful question.
“He wondered if it was safe for us to be outside,” Cindy Roehrs said. “That just shows you the fears they live with.”
When Khaled, the youngest of Shooresh’s four children, arrived, he was having seizures almost daily. Once, he was rushed to the emergency room after a severe seizure. But doctors have adjusted his medication, and Khaled’s seizures have dropped from 18 a month to two or three a month in the past few weeks.
He also has learned to feed himself and to put on his own boots.
“My brother is happy here,” said Abed, a charming young man who speaks English fluently and has a sense of humor. “Lots of things here have helped him and changed him. He’s so much more happy. I’ve seen lots of changes.”
Last week, Khaled ate spaghetti all by himself.
“His perseverance is excellent,” Cindy Roehrs said. “He can do more than his family thinks he can.”
Khaled’s family was told that his seizures were triggered by frustration. So, the objective was to do everything for him. The week Khaled arrived, Cindy watched Abed rock his brother to sleep.
“He had his brother on his lap, and I asked him what he was doing?” Cindy Roehrs said. “He said that this was how they put Khaled asleep for his nap.”
Khaled, who speaks about five made-up words his family understands and yet has good motor skills, had never slept in a bed by himself. Since arriving at the Roehrs home, he has been sleeping in his own bed.
Cindy Roehrs has been overwhelmed by the community’s response in helping Khaled – from Dr. Bill Beppu, a family friend who arranged medical appointments; Julie Backman, Khaled’s teacher; Dr. Gene Peeples, who provided dental care; Paul Martin, who provided medicine; and many others.
When Cindy Roehrs inquired about getting Khaled enrolled at Pioneer, she was pleased by the response. At her first meeting with the school, she met with the principal, a teacher, a nurse and a speech therapist.
“I came away thinking that everyone was so generous,” Cindy Roehrs said. “It was one of those only-in-America kind of things.”
Khaled and his brother will return to their home in Afghanistan on Jan. 11, ending their six-month stay.
“I’m so happy my brother was able to come here,” Abed said. “I’ve seen lots of changes in him that I never knew he could even do.”
Gail Wood: 360-754-5443 firstname.lastname@example.org