Home was bombed father was killed
Arizona Daily Star
Oct. 13, 2007
By Patrick Finley
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/206112
The boy sits on the edge of the couch, listening to the old language and translating. He pauses every five minutes or so, interrupted by the hip-hop ringtone of his phone.
His mother speaks Farsi, a language of her native Afghanistan. Her eyes switch from blasts of sparkles to pools of darkness.
Her hands, pockmarked with white scars — remnants of the bombing — fold and unfold. Her legs, scarred and so swollen that she is unable to work, shift on a floor covered with colorful carpets.
Qais Khairandesh, the Afghan boy, waits for his mom to pause, then speaks in English.
He is telling the story of his father's death.
"My dad and my mom were up there when the bomb hit our house," he said, speaking for his mother, Laila, in the third person. "My dad had a lot of gas up there, a lot of diesel. My dad had a big container with a lot of gas. When pieces flew in the house, it blew up.
"There, we had a little stove. You light it up with the fire and the gas. She was cooking. She was cooking, and that's what happened to her hands."
His father's death is the reason Qais and his brother Wais are here now, running for the Catalina High School cross country team, ranked No. 9 in the state.
The brothers have spent the past 11 years without their father, Abduljafer. He died when shrapnel from a nearby bomb ripped into the home's gas supply near Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. The bomb came from the Taliban, intended for some neighbor. No one is quite sure why.
Abduljafer and Laila Khairandesh spent the next month in the hospital before Abduljafer died. Laila returned home a single mother of four.
"The hardest part was, after my dad died, she was all alone," Qais said.
Qais, now a 17-year-old senior, remembers hearing gunshots and explosions as he lay in bed. He remembers walking into a stadium with his grandmother and seeing people hanging from nooses. Even children of Taliban members had guns, he said.
Qais witnessed his sister, Shakeela, being beaten with a stick by Taliban officials for inadvertently exposing her ankles in a store.
The family needed to leave.
They moved to Pakistan in 1999. There, Laila worked as a housekeeper. The family lived in one guest room of an Islamabad home before being granted refugee status to come to the United States.
Not knowing a word of English, the family landed in Tucson in 2002.
"People got away from it," Qais said, translating for his mother, "so they could save their families."
Boys out for cross country
Nick Varner first saw Qais run during a summer school physical education class before his sophomore year.
The Catalina cross-country coach never had much luck recruiting foreign-born runners to his sport, admitting a slogan he used to print on a T-shirt — "Our sport is your sport's punishment" — isn't a sexy sell.
He used to beg students to give cross country three weeks before they decided to quit. By then, they would either hate it — or be hooked.
Qais (pronounced "Kice") had transferred from Mountain View High School, where he spent his freshman year, because his family moved. Varner asked him if he wanted to try out for the team.
Qais didn't know cross country was a sport. And he admits now that he said yes because of peer pressure; Varner asked him in front of other runners.
Two years later, Qais is the outspoken senior, the class clown. Wais, a 16-year-old junior, is the opposite, quiet and driven.
They are both like their father, Laila said. Abduljafer was funny — that's the Qais side. But the army soldier was also serious, like Wais (pronounced "Wice").
Laila knew Abduljafer, a neighbor, as a child. Later, the marriage was arranged by their parents. Laila was allowed to see a picture of him but could not speak with him until the day before the wedding. Laila was relieved, she says now, that her chosen husband was handsome and kind. Qais has his face.
Earlier this year, Qais took to wearing a coat and tie to school, because "the girls say it's a very gentleman thing." He can be scatterbrained, once having to wear running shoes two sizes too small during a meet because he forgot his.
His teachers reprimand him for joking too much in class, and his opponents glare at him for actually cheering for them. Once Qais crosses the finish line, he claps for the other team's runners behind him. It's genuine, he swears.
Some opposing coaches think it's patronizing; Varner has to calm them down.
Wais, the junior, is a classic little brother — more serious, more competitive and, as both brothers admit, a faster runner. He's a better student and is active in campus activities and clubs. While his brother wants to be an FBI agent, Wais wants to run in college. USC is his dream school.
"Qais is less disciplined than his younger brother, but he has a lot of competitive spirit and fire that he displays in meets," said Varner, who has coached at Salpointe Catholic and Tucson high schools and Pima Community College. "The younger brother is a little bit better than his older brother, and he has higher goals than his brother.
"I like both of them for different reasons. I wouldn't want to have a team without either one."
Mom hasn't seen them run
Laila has never been to a cross-country meet. It's hard for her to get around on her swollen legs.
"She would like to know what it's really like," Qais said, translating for his mom, "but she knows we finish first, second, third."
Laila knows running is good for her boys. It keeps them in shape and keeps their grades straight. Weekly academic checks by their coach ensure that.
That might be the greatest gift sports has given the Khairandesh family. None of the children attended school regularly in Afghanistan or Pakistan. School cost money, and the family was poor. Often, the kids would enroll in school and stay only as long as it took for the first bill to arrive.
Since moving to America, two Khairandesh children — Shakeela and Khalid — have graduated from high school. They now attend Pima College.
"It was real hard for the first year or two," Wais said. "We got used to going to school."
The three oldest children work part time, with Qais juggling school, cross country and a job at Peter Piper Pizza. Together, they chip in money to help the family afford their small apartment a mile or so from Catalina.
School isn't always easy. Even in a place as ethnically diverse as Catalina, Qais and Wais are sometimes taunted and mocked. The cross-country team is a safe place for them — teammates joke with each other every few minutes — but the classroom and hallways are different. Qais figures he hangs out with 10 or so of his countrymen at school.
"That's one thing I don't like about American teenagers," Qais said. "They're like, 'Oh, where's your uncle, Osama bin Laden? Don't mess with him; he'll blow the school up.' "
Qais and Wais love their Muslim country and would like to go back one day. They won't turn their backs on it just to avoid teasing.
On Qais' left hand, below the middle joints of his fingers, are the letters "AFG 4 LIFE," stained repeatedly with black marker.
"When you bring up the name, they think of a bad country, terrorists," Wais said. "But there's a lot more to it. Adults know that. But students are students."
His best team ever
Varner says he has his best Catalina team ever. The times are faster and the packs of runners are tighter than last year's squad that placed second in the Class 4A-I state meet.
Because of enrollment issues, the team was bumped down to 4A-II this year. Entering its final week of the regular season, Catalina is a contender for the state title, which will be decided Nov. 3.
The Trojans are expecting to receive a boost.
Qais spent the past month admittedly weak after observing Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting that ends today. Not being able to eat or drink during daylight hours, he was often weak for races. His mom worried, calling him on his phone before and after meets.
His coach was concerned, too, making Qais promise to drink a gallon of water before the sun came up. Wais did not observe the fast; he said he didn't want to let his team down.
With Ramadan over, Qais — who has "Allah" tattooed on his right biceps in Arabic — will be stronger. He will be smarter, too. For someone who has run almost three years of cross country, Qais has been slow to pick up the strategic side of the sport. But he's getting better.
"He is a wild card for us," Varner said.
With a good two weeks of practice, Qais could be in the team's top five — the number of runners whose scores count in a given meet. Wais is already there.
But regardless of how they do in a three-miler, Qais and Wais have come further than any race could measure.
"Maybe if we stayed in Afghanistan we would have become one of them (the casualities)," Qais said, translating the old language spilling from his mom's lips. "She was so glad that nothing happened to one of us, but she is still sad about what happened to my dad. She wanted to move us as fast as she could.
"We've got a new life here. Now we can get back on track."
● Contact reporter Patrick Finley at 573-4658 or at firstname.lastname@example.org