June 2013 Issue
I wait impatiently behind the fences to pick up my little niece from school. The girls and boys are lined up and ready to leave. The teacher is trying to keep the children in line, but since there are so many of them, and they are very excited to go home, it is hard for the teacher to manage them. I know what it's like to be standing among best friends. You just like to talk, and laugh, and scream. It is so much fun to be a little girl. My niece and her friends remind me of my childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan.
I was five years old when I started school. The night before school started, I was so excited that I did not sleep much. Very early the next morning, my brother and I rode our bicycles to school. I rode closely behind him saying, "Go faster. We are late, go faster."
I was excited, but still very afraid to meet my first teacher, Mrs. Fathema. However, once she welcomed me inside the class and gave me a big hug, I wasn't nervous anymore, although I still asked my brother to stay with me the whole day. As time went by, I got used to my classmates, the old school building, and the squeaky furniture.
My house was not that far from school, and I often walked to school with my best friend, Sima. We had so much fun together. As I grew older, I became the most hyper child at school. I had a lot of friends, but I wasn't like many of the other kids. You see, the grading system at our school was different than in the United States. Students were grouped into first, second, and third grade levels based on achievement. Those with the highest grade averages in class (first grade) had permission to discipline everybody else (second and third grades) in class. I got into the first grade group in my fourth year of school, but I never tried to discipline my classmates. I never told them that I was the smartest in class and that they should listen to everything I said. Instead, I just liked to make everyone laugh.
These were happy days for me. All of that changed when the war between the Mujahideen started.
One day after school, rockets exploded in front of me, Sima, and two other girls. Immediately after the explosion, we started crying. We ran, searching for a place to hide. We went into an alley and knocked on somebody's door. A mean old woman opened the door, looked at us, and said, "What are you doing behind my door?" We asked her if we could come in for a minute because there were bullets flying everywhere. The woman looked closely at us and said that we should go home. She shut the door in our faces. Luckily, no one was hurt, but I will never forget that day.
Because of the heavy fighting, my family moved from Kabul to Ghazni, another province in Afghanistan, to the house my grandfathers left to us. Life was hard. There was no electricity and no running water. To get water, we had to go down to the river with a bucket. I prayed every day to go home. I missed my friends so much. I did not go to school for two years.
After this time, we returned to Kabul. The war was still going on, but the fighting was not as bad. My father was working at a machinery factory, and the school had opened again, so I went back to school with my sister and two younger brothers. My older brother had moved out of the country when I was five, so just my other four brothers lived with us. My two older brothers opened a pharmacy in our neighborhood. My only sister fell in love and got engaged.
Everything was fine until the day after my sister's engagement party in 1997. I was 13 years old. My grandmother had come to our house for the celebration. She wanted to leave, but we all pleaded with her to stay longer. She agreed. Since my grandmother was with us, my sister, brother, mother, grandmother, and I all slept in the same room. In the middle of the night, a loud explosion woke us up. For a moment, I thought I was dead, and it was the Day of Judgment. The ashes burned my face, and I couldn't breathe. My face was so hot, I thought I was burning in hell. The roof collapsed on us. I couldn't move. I cried out for help. I heard my sister for a second, and then she was quiet. Nobody was there to help us.
After several minutes, I heard my neighbors saying, "Hurry up, get them out of there. They will die." I could see them with lamps and shovels in their hands digging through the rubble looking for my brother and sister. They did not rescue me first because I was the only one talking and yelling, and they thought I could wait. I looked up, saw the stars in the sky, and asked God for help. I struggled to get myself out of the dust. It was so hard. My leg was injured very badly. Half of my left leg was attached to my body by skin alone. I was bleeding a lot and went unconscious two or three times. Every time I opened my eyes, I saw my older brother banging on his head with his hands, looking for my brother and sisters underneath the dust and rubble.
Finally, I heard someone say, "Help my daughter." They carried me to where my mother and grandmother were. They were still breathing, but my mother's left leg was gone below the knee. What remained was bleeding as much as mine. My grandmother was cut from the waist down. My little brother was covered in blood. My 18-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother were dead. It was a horrible night. When we got to the emergency room, I heard my grandmother calling for her son. She wanted to see him one last time, but she died before she was able to.
I was in the hospital for two months. My left leg was amputated above the knee. There weren't enough beds in the hospital, so my mother and I were in the same room with five other patients. My mother's wounds were worse than mine. She lost her left leg, and her right leg was injured very badly. She was kept in coma for a week. There was a shortage of nurses, so my cousin Farzana stayed and took care of us. The hospital was in need of blood, and many of our neighbors and family members volunteered to donate blood, but none of them had my blood type. Another cousin, Naheeda, was the only one who had the same blood type as mine. The doctors said she gave so much blood that she fainted several times.
My father and other family members were busy with funeral arrangements and trying to fix our destroyed house. Most nights, I was in so much pain, I could not sleep. The hospital did not have enough pain medicine for all of us. One night I cried so much that the other patients started crying too. A beautiful, paralyzed girl who was in the bed next to mine opened her small handkerchief and gave me some of her own pain reliever.
While I was in the hospital, I became friends with quite a few of the other patients, many of whom had lost their hands, legs, and eyes, and when the nurse told me that I would be discharged from the hospital the next day, I did not want to leave. My old house was gone. My dearest sister, brother, and grandmother had died in that house, and I did not want to see it again. The night before my discharge, I wrote a letter to the doctors telling them that I did not want to leave. I asked them to keep me there so that I could stay with my mother. I gave the letter to one of the nurses. She returned an hour later and said, "I would love to take you to my house. But they won't let you stay here. We need the bed for the new patients."
I said goodbye to my mother, and my brother Shair took me home. My next-door neighbor started crying the moment she saw me get out of the car. She could not say hello. People were trying to rebuild our house. Only one room was undamaged; the others were gone.
Living in that house was hard. I would look at my sister's engagement party photos and cry day and night. One day, my aunt got really upset about this and took all of the photo albums and hid them from me.
Three months after I returned home, my mother was released from the hospital. It was even harder for her to see the house and know that some of her children and her mother would never be there again. She tried not to show her emotions in front of me-she knew how happy I was to have her home-but I could still hear her cry at night.
After my stitches healed, the doctors sent me to get a prosthesis at a hospital owned by the Red Cross. Almost all of the patients there had lost some part of their bodies in a bombing. Some of the prosthetists were from other countries. One of the prosthetists was named Mr. Alberto. He spoke Farsi well and had a beautiful accent. He always made me laugh and said he would make me the best leg that anyone had ever had before. "You can go around and show it off," he said. He always gave me hope that I would be able to walk on my foot again.
Learning to Live
Two more months passed, and I started school again. One day on my way home from school, it started raining, and I got stuck in the mud and did not know what to do. An old man who was sitting in front of a store saw me. He came up to me, gave me his cane, and said, "Hold on to this. You can have it. You need it more than I do." I thanked him and started to cry.
Everything was different. Most of my friends had left the country. I used to be the first one to get home, and now I was the last. I had a hard time adapting to my prosthesis. My leg got blisters and rashes, and it was painful to walk. But I had to walk to school. I cried, wished I was dead, and hated everything. I was lonely and just wanted the old days back.
The war intensified, and the Taliban took over Afghanistan. The schools were closed. Music and television were not allowed. The men had to grow beards, and women could not work or go to school. Women also could not go out without wearing a burqa and had to be accompanied by a male bodyguard. One day, I went to the store with my cousin, and though we were not wearing burqas, we were wearing large shawls that covered everything except our eyes. A Talib man saw us from a distance. He walked up to us with his gun aimed straight at us and asked why were we not wearing a burqa, so we were forced to go home.
My father had had enough and decided we would leave Afghanistan. One of my relatives, who was living in the United States, petitioned for us. She wrote a letter to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) explaining our situation. The government sponsored us as special immigration refugees.
When I came to the United States, I did not know the language and had a hard time adapting to the culture. I felt like I was on another planet. High school was not a good experience. I dressed in a suit, talked differently, and acted differently than everybody else. Everyone at school stared at me. I wanted to go back to Afghanistan, but I had nowhere to go. I was struggling at school and had to start with the alphabet. It took me two years to learn English and adapt to the environment. Slowly, life improved.
Even though a lot of kids teased me, I made many amazing friends who helped me get through school and everyday life. I graduated from high school with honors and received the President's Award for Educational Excellence. After high school, I attended Riverside Community College, California, and graduated with an associate degree in science and art. But I had figured out what I had wanted to do with my life long ago. I wanted to work in a health field and save lives, but I especially wanted to help give people the ability to walk again.
After obtaining my associate degree, I enrolled at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), so that I could earn a bachelor's degree in health science, prosthetics option.
My first two years at CSUDH went smoothly, and then I started the clinical portion of the program. With my limited hands-on experience, receiving a perfect grade was not possible. The most difficult thing for me was presenting my patients in front of everyone and talking in front of the class. I would start shaking and mumbling and forget everything I wanted to say. One day after a presentation, I was so embarrassed in front of the class that I just stood there like a statue. Mr. Muller [Mark Muller, MS, CPO, FAAOP], who I always felt comfortable talking to, told me that it's not a big deal to have stage fright and that I was not the only person who this had happened to. After that day, I felt better and actually did better. I graduated from CSUDH in 2011.
I come out of my nostalgic daze and see my niece running up to me. In her soft, joyful voice, she says, "Aunt Kojista, salaam. Look, I got a treat for being a good helper." With all my power, I hug her and give her a big kiss. I encourage her to always be the best of her class. I love seeing her smile. One day I hope to hold the hands of those who need my support and give them the care and tools they need to be able to walk again.
Kojista Ahmadyar is searching for a residency site or another job related to O&P. She currently provides tutoring for autistic and disabled children at one of her neighborhood schools. She can be contacted at