RENO, Nev. – Aimal Halim used to dream of coming to America when he was working as an interpreter in his native Afghanistan for the Nevada Army National Guard.
Not only did he make the trip, on Friday the 27-year-old received a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Nevada, Reno, thanks in large part to one of the officers in the guard unit.
Kurt Neddenriep, then a lieutenant colonel in command of the Guard's 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry, promised Halim back in 2009 he would pay for his college education if he could get accepted at Nevada. He ended up graduating with a 3.21 grade point average.
"Looking back, I still can't believe it," Hamil told the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://tinyurl.com/lfhcrzk .) "I am still trying to connect the dots, and I just can't believe I am getting my bachelor's degree from a university. I used to dream of coming to America. I am so blessed."
It has been a long road from the days when he lived in a tent under a bridge in Kabul with his mother and sister, often cold, more often hungry.
He was an infant when his father died of cancer, leaving the family struggling to survive in a society where families without a man as the head of the household are vulnerable.
Hamil learned to speak English by watching American movies in local coffee houses, a skill that would lead him to become an interpreter for Neddenriep.
Neddenriep was with Halim for the annual "Honor the Best" ceremony, where Halim received the Henry Albert Award for outstanding service for his work with a group that helps provide medical care to the poor in Bangladesh.
"After graduation, my ultimate goal, what my dreams are is to go back to Afghanistan someday when there is peace, and to bring fundamental reform to the country and try to help Afghanistan in any way I can," he said.
Halim said that could mean running for a political office or heading a nonprofit organization, but he wants to get a graduate degree first in conflict resolution. "What I would like to bring back home is what I learned over here about having a pluralistic society," he said.
He learned a lot about Americans during classroom discussions about the Vietnam War, Halim said.
"The debate would get so heated, but at the end of the class, they would come back as one family," he said. "For me, that was such an amazing thing because in Afghanistan, if we disagree, we absolutely hate each other and we try to hurt each other.
"The presidents compete with each other, but then Obama won, and the other man called him on the phone and congratulated Obama and his family. It just impresses me so much that some people have different views and religions here, but they come together as one."
Neddenriep said Halim has spoken to Reno-area organizations, providing people with a different perspective of the people of Afghanistan as well.
"They hear him and realized, wow, he cares about family like I do, and he cares about equality like I do and think people over there must not have those same values that we have," Neddenriep said. "But a lot the people in Afghanistan are shopkeepers who just want their shops to do well, or they're farmers who just want their farms to do well."
Hamil said he is grateful not just for his "immediate family" of Neddenriep and his wife, Katie, who brought him to Reno and paid for his college, but also for his extended family: the members of the local Rotary and Soroptimist clubs. They also pitched in to pay for his college expenses and to support his mother and sister back home.
"They helped me not get too homesick, and they helped me not give up, but to push myself," Halim said. "I was surrounded by good people who gave me the support and the strength to finish my degree. I just want to thank everyone here, and I just love this country."
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com