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Struck by a rocket that killed his brother, boy brings out the best in man

The rocket sounded like screeching tyres as it hurtled over our heads and erupted at the crossroads.

I scrambled for cover in an open field, but Najib didn’t have time to think. He was pedalling along the empty streets of Lashkar Gah with his younger brother Hamid balanced on the back of the bicycle when the rocket hit the road right next to them.

It was 7.24am on August 20, 2009. Polling day in Helmand. Hamid, 13, was decapitated by shrapnel and died instantly. His beige robes were drenched in blood, his sandals and skullcap strewn across the road, where the mangled remains of the rocket lay smouldering. Najib, 15, just a few inches farther forward, was thrown off the bike and knocked unconscious, but miraculously he survived.

A 2mm shard of metal had punctured deep into his left eyeball and his left foot was riddled with gravel from the blast. He came round to the sound of debris falling out of the sky as a plume of dark smoke rose silently in its place.

By the time I had found the courage to sprint over from the polling station tents in a football field 60 metres from the crossroads Najib was just finding the breath to wail.

It was a terrifying, painful wail.

Four men lifted Hamid’s lifeless body into an ambulance and Najib stood there screaming, staggering, in shock. When he turned away from me I saw blood and bone on his back and in his hair.

That day was supposed to be a landmark moment on Afghanistan’s path towards self-governance and democracy. It was, without doubt, the worst day of Najib’s life.

Neither of us knew it, but that rocket was to entwine our lives. It would propel Najib the son of an illiterate cobbler towards unimaginable opportunities that would change his life for ever.

The day after the rocket attack, I went to Najib’s house.

Hamid had already been buried and Najib’s eye was covered by a bandage. The sparse, mud-walled house was full of relatives. Najib’s father could barely speak, for grief, and his uncle was planning a trip to Kabul along one of the most dangerous roads in the world to try to find a doctor who might save the injured eye.

Najib spoke a handful of English words and, despite the pain of his injuries and the trauma of his loss, was eager to use them.

I would never have thought that barely two years later the two of us would be sitting side by side on an aeroplane bound for Heathrow. Najib has won a full-fees scholarship to Stowe, my old boarding school, and somewhere along the lines I have become his guardian. He is now studying physics, maths and biology (as well as doing acting and guitar classes), and wants to be a doctor.

Remarkably Najib has taken British boarding school in his stride. “Najib has drive, determination and a wonderful work ethic as well as a very calm and positive outlook,” said his first assessment. “Najib could not have made a better start.”

Yet back in 2009 there was more misery to come. There was no hospital in Afghanistan that could remove the metal from his eye. General Jim Dutton, the most senior British officer in Afghanistan at the time, asked the French Nato hospital in Kabul to help, but even its surgeons couldn’t get it out and this tiny shard of shrapnel was scratching his retina to death.

Soldiers with similar injuries are airlifted home, the surgeon Bernard Swalduz explained, because every hour counts when it comes to saving someone’s sight.

Time for Najib was running out fast. It was another two weeks before an American charity, Solace, managed to get Najib to Carolina, where an expert ophthalmologist, Dr Nasrollah Samiy, removed the offending piece of metal. Najib stayed in America so the medics could monitor his recovery over a couple of months, but he never regained sight in the injured eye.

Instead, he gained an insatiable appetite for learning English and, despite my best efforts, an unshakeable American accent. Solace and Samiy have remained bulwarks of support.

Back in Afghanistan, Najib enrolled at one of the best high schools in Kabul, because he knew it offered a much better education than he could hope for in Helmand, and he moved into a dormitory, run by the nearby School of Leadership Afghanistan (Sola) an international charity that specialises in getting talented Afghan students scholarships to schools and universities in America. “Sola helps those who help themselves,” is one of the favourite mantras of its founder Ted Achilles, and Najib has clearly learnt it well.

Najib quickly roped me in to teaching a weekly English class at the Sola dorm. Then, almost 18 months after he had moved to Kabul, he knocked on my door in the city and asked for help.

Sola had been forced to stop teaching boys, he explained, because its conservative Afghan neighbours had complained that boys and girls were being taught together under one roof.

“Help me find a scholarship,” he said.“But I’ve got no idea,” I protested. We were sitting in my garden and the local mosque’s loudspeakers had filled the evening air with urgent prayers.

“Email your old school,” he suggested.

“It’s not like America,” I said. “British schools don’t have the same culture of scholarships and endowments.”

“Can’t you just ask them?” he said.

I agreed to email Stowe’s headmaster, Anthony Wallersteiner. “Dear Dr Wallersteiner, I am so sorry I never made it back to Stowe to give a talk.” I hadn’t even replied to the invitation and I cringed at such an awkward start. “Today, though, I am writing on a very different matter and I hope you may be able to help.... As unlikely as it might be, I am asking because I promised I would.”

That was the Wednesday night before the new school year started. On Thursday Wallersteiner replied, asking if we could arrange a telephone interview for the following afternoon.

He explained how he used to sell juice in Lashkar Gah’s bazaar, how he was the first person in his family to visit America, the only one who could speak English and how he dreamt of being a doctor, because doctors had helped him and he wanted to help others. If he didn’t continue his education, he explained, he would probably have to work as a mechanic’s apprentice for less than 40 pence (Rs 32) a day, in a garage in Lashkar Gah one of the most dangerous cities in Afghanistan.

“I will work 24 hours if I have to. I won’t sleep, so I can catch up,” he said.

An hour later he’d been offered a full-fees sixth-form scholarship worth 28,000 a year. “It’s not every day we get the opportunity to change someone’s life like this,” Wallersteiner said. “He’s clearly very bright.”

Now all we had to do was get a visa, but if you’re Afghan and in Afghanistan it’s harder and more expensive than almost anywhere in the world because the British embassy doesn’t have a consular section, so applicants have to fly to Delhi and do it all from there.

As a minor, Najib also needed his parents’ consent, their signatures on all the application forms, and his original birth certificate. This was an even bigger problem because both his parents were in Helmand, both of them are illiterate and no one born in Afghanistan (that I have ever met) has a birth certificate.

Yet we were determined not to lose out to a pesky administrative glitch and, quite shamelessly, I emailed everyone I could think of who might be able to help. Afghanistan can be quite a bleak place in which to live and work but the overwhelming response to my appeals were a reminder that the world is full of good people.

A German lawyer drafted a letter on behalf of Najib’s parents, giving their consent and making me his guardian so that I could sign the visa forms. Najib emailed it to an Internet cafe in Lashkar Gah, where the shop assistant printed it and gave it to his mother. Najib’s mother took the letter, along with Najib’s father, to the department of women’s affairs, so that they could both sign it (with their thumb-prints) in the presence of a local government official.

The official then signed and stamped a separate letter, testifying Najib’s parents were who they said they were, and that the contents of the letter, which was written in English, had been verbally translated and explained.

Still, it wasn’t a birth certificate, so his mum and dad had to pose for a photograph holding up the consent form so that visa officials could compare it to earlier family photos of Najib with his parents.

The British ambassador in Kabul was on holiday at the time but he alerted his staff who in turn alerted Delhi that Najib was on his way. Instead of taking three weeks, he got his visa in two days.

We flew to England and, on the way to Stowe, stopped at a shopping centre where Najib did a remarkably good job of picking out designer suits and shoes, despite claiming never to have heard of Hugo Boss. In this instance my generous uncle footed the bill the scholarship doesn’t cover extras.

The headmaster was waiting on the steps of the school as we rolled up the drive and Najib had his first glimpse of the stately house that was about to become his home.

We met his housemaster and matron, and they showed us to his bedroom. Then Wallersteiner began a guided tour, through the state-rooms and the classroom block, and up to the playing fields where new third formers were involved in team-building activities.

Then suddenly, it was time for evensong (evening prayer). Out came the suit. His housemaster, Anthony Macpherson, loaned him a tie, there was a fellow pupil on hand to show him how to knot it and the prefects showed him the way to chapel. (As he is a devout Muslim, his attendance was optional but he was clearly intrigued.) Islam had taught him to respect other people’s religions, he explained, as though evensong at a public school was the most normal thing in the world.

On his first exeat (leave of absence) weekend, the Tube was almost as exciting as the London Eye (there are no working passenger trains in Afghanistan) and at the Natural History Museum he said he had thought that dinosaurs weren’t real. “I thought they were only in cartoons,” he said, utterly transfixed.

“Najib’s progress has been quite astonishing and he volunteers for everything,” the headmaster wrote in a recent email. “The way he has overcome overwhelming adversity and embraced this opportunity is a great testament to the resilience of the human spirit. He is determined not to let us down and, although it is still early days, I am optimistic that this experiment will succeed and that we will witness a remarkable transformation over the coming years.”

My progress has been much slower. I am still getting used to behaving like a parent and I try not to laugh every time a teacher calls me Mr Starkey. I have learnt that museums are free, the London Eye is expensive and that my mum probably had a point when she insisted on dressing me at M&S.

I am also happy when I see Najib’s friends increase on Facebook, thrilled when I hear how well he’s doing in class. And I could almost cry when I stop to think about how far he has come.

THE TIMES, LONDON

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