In Afghanistan, a fortunate accident

Two Minnesotans making a video in Kabul got sidetracked on a mission of mercy.

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Dina Fesler, of Northfield, with a malnourished girl from a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. She and Kelly Kinnunen, of Minneapolis, were there to shoot an educational video when the children’s medical needs compelled them to help.

Photo: Kelly Kinnunen,

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A stranger thrust his limp, sore-covered infant toward Dina Fesler.

"Take him. Please," he said. "I don't know what else to do."

Far from the debate here at home over escalating U.S. troop numbers, two Minnesotans are in Afghanistan helping its most vulnerable war victims: children in need of medical care and no means to get it.

Fesler, who runs a nonprofit group in Northfield, Minn., called War Kids Relief, went to Kabul with Kelly Kinnunen, co-founder of the Minneapolis-based humanitarian magazine NEED, on a trip financed by donors and grants.

They intended to shoot an educational video to use in Minnesota schools. But when they visited the area's largest refugee camp, squalid Charahee Qambar, a more urgent mission became clear.

"The camp is unfit for human existence," Fesler said Friday via e-mail from Kabul.

She cited ankle-deep mud, clothes and dishes washed in sewage-tainted water, and imminent below-freezing temperatures. One of their guides, Wasim Mohammad, a seasoned former Red Cross medic, "got tears in his eyes when he saw the conditions," Kinnunen said.

Many of the camp's residents come from Helmand Province in southeast Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold and center of some of the most aggressive fighting.

Rahim, the baby whose plight first inspired this grassroots, micro heath care plan, was not expected to live through the night, one doctor said, but is now doing much better.

Rahim's father, Mira Jan, was a farmer in Helmand. He became emotional when he told of how his village, still under Taliban rule, was bombed, reducing his house to rubble, killing his oldest daughter, blowing off his younger daughter's arm and killing all of his animals.

The camp has a small health tent, but its meager supplies "are like having a high school nurse's office to serve a city of 5,000," Fesler said. After being told that 70 percent of the children in the 800-family camp have pneumonia and that many have serious illnesses, the two Americans and Mohammad, who said he felt a "moral obligation," worked quickly to make a deal with Kabul's top three hospitals for low-cost medical care.

"The nearest hospital is a 15-minute ride away, but these people can't afford a taxi ride there, let alone any treatment costs," Fesler said.

In the past three days, they have brought in a severely malnourished 8-year-old girl with a bone disorder that prevents her from walking, a 6-month-old baby with persistent pneumonia, a malnourished teen and a boy with a severe eye infection that will cause complete blindness if not treated.

Kinnunen and Fesler plan to return to Minnesota on Dec. 12.

Kinnunen runs the magazine NEED with his wife, Stephanie, under the motto, "We are not out to save the world but to tell the stories of those who are." The magazine has won several awards from the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

A human face on the region

Fesler, a former fashion designer and inveterate world traveler, founded Children's Culture Connection, which raises money for worldwide children's charities and matches American teens with pen pals from war-torn nations, including Iraq.

The video the two are making in Afghanistan will be used as part of a curriculum for middle and high schools being developed with teachers in Cannon Falls, Minn.

"The goal is to put a human face on this region that is currently a source of confusion and fear," Fesler said. "From our research, many American kids think we are at war with the Afghan people."

The Kabul hospitals will continue treating the Charahee Qambar camp children through the end of this month, with donations raised through the War Kids Relief website (www.warkidsrelief.org).

"We aren't a medical team; we're just a few people who stumbled upon a dying baby by accident," Fesler wrote on a blog chronicling their progress. "The good news is, baby Rahim is recovering nicely. ... The bad news is what we all know he has to look forward to when he comes home from the hospital."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

 

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