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'Solace' For Afghani Kids In Lake Norman

This week, about 20 kids from Afghanistan are flying back home after spending six weeks in the Lake Norman area. They were here to get medical treatment they otherwise would not have received. Some have sustained war wounds from roadside bombs and others suffer from chronic illness. While here, the kids stay with host families.

Earlier this summer, Cynthia (Cindy) Gunter was nervously pacing back and forth when she arrived at the airport to meet the boy from Afghanistan that her family would soon take into their home.

"I had asked the Lord about this and you know it's like, 'Is this something Lord that we could do as a 

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Cynthia (Cindy) Gunter waits for 12-year-old Menhajuldin (Menhaj) Shadab at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in June.

family?' And then I would wait in quiet time for an answer and Sandy -- her name was in my mind," Gunter says. "It came back, 'Sandy … Sandy …'"

Sandy Tabor-Gray is the coordinator for the Lake Norman branch of Solace for the Children. It's a group that identifies sick children in Afghanistan, many based on recommendations from American soldiers stationed there.

"I'm so excited … our whole family is," Gunter says. "We made the poster and we don't know what to expect, but we're all going to surprise each other I guess, right?" 

It was her first time hosting a child from a different country and turns out – there were a lot of surprises.

Twelve-year-old Menhajuldin (Menhaj) Shadab learned the Pink Panther theme song in his hometown of Kabul.

Menhaj left Kabul this summer in hopes of getting a diagnosis for his weakening body. He only weighs 40 pounds, less than half of the weight of Gunter's son, Gavin, who is also 12. Because of this, he has a lot of difficulty putting on his clothes or walking up the stairs and even tumbled down the stairs once.

The family has enjoyed getting to know Menhaj and seeing the silly kid that emerged once he became comfortable. He's learned how to ride a bike with training wheels, play video games, go on the swings and loves going to the pool. But it hasn't always been easy.

For Gunter's son Gavin, it's been especially eye-opening. He helps Menhaj with a lot of basic tasks, like holding the door or squeezing the toothpaste onto his toothbrush.

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Menhaj watches his host brother, Gavin Gunter, also 12, play a game on his mom's phone.

"It's just kind of hard to figure out that someone else is living with you that needs special needs and all that," Gavin says. "So yeah, it's a little different, difficult sometimes. But yeah, I'm used to it now."

At times, Gunter says it was challenging for Gavin because daily life did change a lot.

The family made a lot of accommodations. Menhaj wanted to sleep on the ground floor, so they moved his mattress down a flight of stairs for him to sleep in the family room. He was afraid of the dog, so it had to go outside. And figuring out what Menhaj likes to eat took a lot of trial and error. Pizza, though, was an instant hit.

Many days were filled with appointments to physical therapists, dentists and chiropractors to find out what was wrong with him and provide basic care he doesn't have access to in Kabul. And there were lots of fun activities like going to Lake Norman.   

"I think I knew there would be a lot of appointments and dental work and I was prepared for that, but the actual putting on his socks and I mean like, it's like a three-year-old," Gunter says. "You have a constant sense of urgency that there's something to be attended to."

Last week, the family learned exactly why he needs all that help. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. It's a genetic disease that causes muscles to weaken and there's no cure. 

Credit Tasnim Shamma
Menhaj salutes the Gunter family in a photo taken with his physical therapist, Kevin Kucko.

"I think I'll always be concerned," Gunter says. "And just that uncertainty of how he's going to adjust, you know. What's his body going to look like five years from now? Is he going to grow like a normal man?"

She doesn't know if he knows what this diagnosis means or even how much he's been told.  

The language barrier did pose a challenge sometimes, but there are some things, like a smile, that are universal. And that's something they both shared a lot of this summer.