You don't have to worry. I am feeling better," 9-year-old Khairullah Hayat assures his father. He's curled on a sofa between Heather and Aaron Ayris in their Mooresville, N.C., home speaking in his native Pashto language on a cell phone to his dad 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. "It is better for me here than there," says the boy, called Khai. And yet his father, Asmatullah, takes Khai's news with a somewhat heavy heart: He can't help but ask how Khai addresses his American hosts. Khai tells him, "I call them Mommy and Daddy."
To save this young boy—who suffers from a blood disease that has already killed three of his 10 siblings—two families, separated by distance, language and culture, are each making extraordinary sacrifices. Though they signed up with a charity to take him in for six weeks, the Ayrises are now welcoming Khai into their family for as long as it takes him to get well. And Khai's parents in Afghanistan's rural Laghman province made the heartrending decision to give him up indefinitely to America, hoping he'll be cured and return to them someday. "It was hard to send him," says Asmatullah, 45, a pharmacist. "But I want my son to live." He has never met any Americans, yet of the Ayrises, he says, "I know they are a good family."
Too sick to attend school in his own country, Khai was one of 35 Afghani kids flown to North Carolina in June by Solace for the Children, a Lake Norman-based Christian charity that since 1996 has brought hundreds to the U.S. for medical treatment. The parents of two boys, ages 7 and 8, Heather, 32, a customer service supervisor, and Aaron, 32, currently laidoff from a marketing position, signed up with Solace and were assigned Khai. "We thought it was just for the summer," says Aaron. "Our sons could learn about helping others and about another culture."
But Khai's condition was far worse than Solace's usual six-week program could address. Suffering from a blood disorder called beta-thalassemia major, he had received monthly blood transfusions since he was a baby, but never got the necessary treatments to remove the build-up of excess iron. "That can lead to liver, heart and other organ failure," says Dr. Shelley Rinker, his U.S. pediatrician.
His iron levels were so dangerously high that Heather was told that Khai's case was "hopeless... a waste of resources." But she had already fallen in love with the dark-eyed boy's quick smile and loving manner and was unwilling to accept that dire diagnosis. She and Aaron researched therapies and soon secured a donation of a medication that costs $70,000 a year through "a series of miracles," says Heather.
They also agreed to care for Khai until he is able to receive a lifesaving bone marrow transplant—which could take a year or longer. Khai's siblings are being tested as matches, and the Ayrises say they will help arrange the travel and surgery. Says Solace cofounder Patsy Wilson: "They have made a complete commitment to Khai, [who] needed a different level of care than most of the children do."
Now before kissing all three boys good night, the couple hook up a pump attached to a needle inserted into Khai's abdomen to help remove the iron from his blood as he sleeps. The process began working within three weeks, and the child who had at first been so weak and, recalls Heather, "numb to everything," was replaced with a spirited kid who bonded with his new "brothers," Cade and AJ.
Despite an early language barrier, the boys quickly found common ground in Legos, video games and Batman. (In his new bathrobe Khai's the caped crusader, Cade is Robin and AJ the villain.) "There was no Batman at home," says Khai now, in the English he has quickly learned. Nor was there plumbing in his four-room house, a fact that he relates with a universal gesture for "stinky." But he is quick to add they have a television and all his siblings like "watching together." Finally able to attend school, Khai is "fascinated with watercolors, clay and hand sanitizer," says teacher Beth Sutliff. "He is a bright, inquisitive boy."
As much as he loves his new life—"I like strawberry ice cream and cartoons," he says—Khai is still tied to Afghanistan. The Ayrises help him call home each Saturday. They took him to a mosque to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan. For their part, Khai's father and mother sent traditional Afghan garments for all three boys, and Khai has taught Cade and AJ some Pashto.
Though he dreams of the day his son comes home, Khai's father says saving his son's life is his bigger dream. "I want him to be healthy," says Asmatullah, "even if that would mean he could not return."
With a mother's devotion in her voice, Heather says, "We will do everything we can to save Khai." And although this joyful boy calls her Mommy, "he is not biologically my child," she says with tears in her eyes. "One day, I will have to send him back." For now, Khai is healing. "This is me," he says, pointing at pictures in an Ayris family album. "I am making a crazy face. I am happy."