SALT LAKE CITY -- Razia Niaz was orphaned at age 6 in Afghanistan when a Taliban bomb killed her father and required her left leg to be amputated. Fifteen years later, she is getting some help here in Utah, which she says will change her life.
Now a college student in Kabul, Razia is in Utah through December and will get her first dose of western culture, at Christmastime, while a Utah charity and area businesses will help refit a troublesome prosthetic leg.
Razia walks with a limp because her left leg is gone just above the knee. A prosthetic leg helps, but the one she has is old and poorly designed and causes her pain when she walks.
"I've had a lot of problems with my leg, it always hurt me," she said.
She has to walk almost everywhere she goes in Afghanistan, including to work and school. But when she leaves Utah, the prosthetic limb will be in much better condition.
"I always miss my classes," Razia said. "When I go back, it will be very good for me and I won't miss any classes."
Razia is getting the help thanks to the Afghan Orphan project.
Layne Pace, a battalion chief with the Orem Fire Department, was deployed to Afghanistan as a national guard helicopter pilot in 2004. He and other soldiers co-founded the charity.
"As we came home, we formed the Afghan Orphan Project because we knew there was much, much more that needed to be done there," he said.
The organization has helped orphanages and small villages in Afghanistan. This time, they've recruited Hanger Prosthetics to refurbish Razia's prosthetic limb and Independence Rehabilitation to provide two weeks of physical therapy.
But it wasn't the leg problem that led to her contact with the charity. Razia heard about the project from her cousin Nazeem, who the charity flew to Austin, Texas, for open heart surgery. He told Razia about the help he got from Americans. She latched on to an e-mail address for Pace and sent her plea half-way around the world: "She asked for support to get her through high school," Pace said.
Razia learned some English on her own and likely used some "nothing else to lose" determination to scramble and pursue an education. There's a lot of that mindset in war-torn Afghanistan. "There is a lot of desperation," Pace said, adding that the good things Afghans are trying to accomplish doesn't get talked about. "There's so much bad-guy activity that all of the others get overlooked."
Now Razia is not only getting help with her leg, she's getting money to attend college -- which, for a woman in Afghanistan, is a rare opportunity.
The orphan project is now supporting her college expenses as she pursues a four-year degree in business. Afghans with tenacity like hers "are the future of Afghanistan," Pace said.
"I hope I will have a very good time, and I have many American friends here and I'm very excited to meet them," she said. "I will have a very good experience here."
Razia will be in the U.S. until the end of the month. Daniela Larsen is among those hosting Razia while she is here. "We want to give her a really good western experience," Larsen said. Extreme sensitivities in Afghanistan about Christianity have Larsen's Mormon family looking for a broad range of holiday activities to involve their guest in.
Fundraising specifically to help with Razia's expenses started Friday night with a concert in the University of Utah's Olpin University Union building. Additional fundraising events are scheduled as far out as February.