When they step off the plane, the sick and injured Afghan children shed their surnames, stripping themselves of a label that often carries tribal or religious implications and enabling them to form friendships most once thought impossible.
Friendships with children from other tribes and faiths, children they might otherwise grow up to fight.
And friendships with the Americans who take them in while doctors treat their wounds.
"In America, I'm learning every day," 17-year-old Zaman Rashid, who is from the embattled western province of Farah, said recently as he sat in front of a laptop at his host family's suburban home in Statesville. "I'm learning every day in Afghanistan just, I'm learning war — how to kill a person."
The Charlotte-based nonprofit Solace for the Children has been bringing groups of children, nearly three dozen this summer alone, from Afghanistan to North Carolina for medical treatment since 2007. Dick Wilson, a retired insurance agent and his wife, Patsy, a real estate agent, started the organization in 1996 by bringing children from Belarus affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident to the U.S. for medical treatment. As the need there diminished, the Wilsons turned their focus to Afghanistan.
Along the way, they discovered that healing for the 50 children who have so far taken part doesn't stop after American doctors treat their physical injuries.
"When they got here we witnessed a phenomenon that took us by surprise. We learned that many of the children were from warring tribes," said Patsy Wilson. "They wouldn't have been speaking to each other at all in Afghanistan."
Learning to get along
During that first summer, the children decided among themselves to drop any part of their names that carried an ethnic, regional or religious implication. In the two summers since, organizers have encouraged the children to continue the practice.
When they dropped parts of their names, "everything relaxed," Wilson said.
Territory, resources, religion and political power contribute to conflict in Afghanistan that pits families against families, said Rick Barton, a co-director and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The country has really been so torn apart," Barton said. "To survive over the last 20 years people had to do just about anything, to include killing their neighbor."
As the children learn to get along with one another, their American host families are learning from them. "He puts things into perspective for us," said Carole McCay, Rashid's host mother in North Carolina for the past three summers. "He's a wonderful child," she said. "He's our son."
'Between life and death'
Rashid first came to America in 2007 to have a tumor removed from his sinus cavity. He returned this summer to have his soft palate restored after a botched surgery in Pakistan and he's using his experiences to show the other kids how they can make peace in their country.
He's taught himself English and talks enthusiastically of life in the U.S. but anxiously about life in Afghanistan where he's been deafened by shoulder-fired rockets and seen police officers slain by Taliban fighters.
"Our lives in Farah, it's between death and life. We don't know if maybe we will die. It happens so fast," said Rashid, who wants to make a life in Afghanistan after college so he can help his country.
After the first stay with his host family was extended so he could recover from surgery, Rashid sent a note along with the departing children and asked the interpreter to read it aloud to them on the plane.
"I told them, 'Don't think who's Shia, who's Sunni. We all are brothers," Rashid said. "'We should love each other and we should start from here.'"