Opportunity of a lifetime

August 20, 2009, was Election Day in Afghanistan. 

The country had gone through many changes since Najibullah – or Najib – was born in the years between Soviet occupation and Taliban takeover. The strict Islamic regime allowed Afghanistan to become a haven for al Qaeda, which led to the September 11 attacks on America and the subsequent U.S. invasion that ended the Taliban’s brutal reign. Najib remembers watching his city being bombed by Americans, a few years of relative calm after the invasion and installation of a new government, and finally more violence as suicide bombings and political instability became the norm.

On that fateful August day, Najib, then 15, and his younger brother Hamid were riding tandem on a bicycle in front of the governor’s residence in the city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, where Najib augmented his family’s meager income by selling cold drinks out of a cart. 

Najib was in front with his brother riding on the back of the bike when a rocket exploded beside them. Najib was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he was on the ground, his clothes in tatters and he was tangled up in the bike, crying out in pain. His left eye was pierced by a piece of shrapnel, but his first thoughts were of Hamid. He looked around and saw his 13-year-old brother lying dead on the road. Hamid’s head had caught the brunt of the blast. “I couldn’t even see his face,” Najib said.

Among the many witnesses to the explosion was English journalist Jerome Starkey, who was covering Afghanistan for the London Times.

“By the time I had found the courage to sprint over … Najib was just finding the breath to wail. It was a terrifying, painful wail. … 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,” Starkey later wrote.

The next day, Starkey tracked down Najib at his home. His eye was bandaged but it was clear that Najib needed better treatment than was available to the average Afghan. Plans were made to go to Pakistan for an operation, but Starkey pulled some strings to get Najib treatment at the international air base at Bagram. 

“He helped me. He rescued me,” Najib said of Starkey.

Najib needed more sophisticated help to remove the shrapnel and eventually, with the help of the international aid organization Solace for the Children, he was brought to the U.S. for a series of surgeries. The doctors were unable to save the sight in that eye, but Najib was able to experience the American way of life while he stayed with a host family, Doug and Joyce Steele, in Charlotte, N.C. 

After his treatment in the U.S., Najib returned to his homeland, but “wanted to leave Afghanistan really bad.” He attended a school in Kabul for students who were preparing to study abroad, where he began to learn a key lesson about life: It’s not always what you know, but who you know. 

Students were encouraged to reach out to anyone who could help them secure a spot at a foreign school, to use whatever network they might have to secure a better future. Najib’s network was small. “I tried contacting schools in the U.S. directly but they had no interest in me. My host family in North Carolina tried to help. Solace for the Children tried to help, but nothing happened,” he said.

Then he contacted Starkey and asked him directly: “Maybe you could contact your old school?”

Starkey was unsure. He’d attended the Stowe School, an English boarding school in Buckinghamshire, that boasts alumni – “Old Stoics” – including Sir Richard Branson, Superman actor Henry Cavill, screen legend David Niven and Christopher Robin Milne. (Yes, that Christopher Robin.) Starkey hadn’t maintained any connections to the school, but he emailed the headmaster anyway. After a phone interview, Najib was offered a scholarship. 

Starkey ended up acting as Najib’s guardian while he was at school and the journalist has written movingly of his role helping the boy adjust to his new surroundings. 

“It was a big challenge,” Najib said. He struggled with schoolwork, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering his limited educational opportunities in Afghanistan. “I passed some exams. I failed others. But my language improved. I improved culturally and I made lots of connections.”

Najib, who had taken up running while he was in the U.S. previously, got serious about the sport. He was asked to run a marathon and agreed, though he had no idea of how to prepare for the challenge. He studied but couldn’t find a training regime that suited him. “I gotta make my own,” he said and just started adding two miles a week to his regular eight-mile run. 

That determination, along with an “energy drink” concocted out of honey, milk and water (all items he could scrounge from the school’s tables), got him across the finish line. 

His running prowess and compelling personal story elevated Najib to minor celebrity status. He met the Duchess of York and attracted some media attention while at Stowe. As his time there ran down, he began to think about where he could go to college. He wanted to return to the U.S. 

Help finally came as the result of a tenuous connection. Dr. Mark Hendrickson, professor of economics at Grove City College, was visiting England and met up with his friend John Fingleton, an Old Stoic who invited Hendrickson to tour the school and have lunch with an “extraordinary young man.” 

“I enjoyed his company and I was impressed by his story,” Hendrickson said of Najib. The professor felt compassion for a boy living in a place that was so culturally, linguistically and religiously different from what he had known. “He later contacted me, looking for options and wondered if there was any place I knew he could attend,” Hendrickson said. “I didn’t have any connections … so I called Bill.”

Bill is William Mehaffey ’64, a member of the Grove City College’s Board of Trustees. 

“I have a heart for international students,” said Mehaffey, who previously provided support for students from Ethiopia and Albania to attend Grove City College. “This kid deserved a break and I felt he needed a break,” Mehaffey said. “This is what we are called to do as a faith-based college.”

Mehaffey organized an effort to raise the money that would be necessary to cover Najib’s tuition and room and board at the College and even met him at the airport when he arrived in Pennsylvania. Mehaffey credits about a dozen Trustees and alumni for contributing money to help Najib, and noted faculty and College staff members have gone above-and-beyond-the-call to ensure Najib’s well-being. 

Najib is grateful for the help and the “life-changing opportunity” to attend Grove City College.

As he had at Stowe, Najib faced a steep learning curve, academically and culturally. He had some trouble adjusting to campus life during his freshman year and acknowledges some struggles early on with the College’s “rigorous academics,” but his grades are improving and he has landed upon a major that suits his talents and interests in entrepreneurship.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” Najib said. While he learned his father’s trade as a shoe repairman when he was very young, Najib saw a greater opportunity and convinced his family to take out a loan to buy supplies to build a cart from which he could peddle cold drinks on the streets of Lashkar Gah. He was soon bringing in twice as much money for the family as his father. 

Here in the U.S., Najib is honing several business ideas and money-making ventures, including one that capitalizes on his knowledge of the family business. He’s developing an idea called the Shoe Sanitizer, a box built to hold a shoe and several automated brushes and cleaning tools. Najib makes a pitch for the idea and demonstrates an early prototype on YouTube here: gcc.edu/shoebox.

At Grove City College, Najib has been afforded access to schools of thought that he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to acquire elsewhere, and he’s embraced some of them. For example, he’s a self-described libertarian and devotee of Austrian economics. That mindset may have helped him pull off a bit of coup when it came time to make his plans for the summer. Najib applied for and secured a competitive internship through the Koch Institute with Atlas Network, where he’ll learn market-based management, participate in workshops to build marketable skills, study economics, philosophy and political science, apply economic thinking principles in team projects, and work with Atlas think-tank partners around the globe.

While a Grove City College education is certain to favorably impact Najib’s chances for a successful and rewarding future, Mehaffey thinks students like Najib can do the same for American students. “I don’t think American students truly understand how much they can learn if they befriend international students,” he noted.

Najib’s plans for after graduation aren’t set in stone. There’s no question he wants to remain in the U.S. – for good reason. With his now-extensive ties to the West, Hendrickson observed: “He really can’t go back. He’s a marked man. He’s taken the plunge and it’s sink or swim, but he’s a survivor.”

This story originally ran in the Summer 2016 GēDUNK magazine. Read more HERE.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the cover shoot, click HERE.

Opportunity of a lifetime

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