PLENTYWOOD — Against the biting winter wind, Firdavs Temirov, blue jeans tucked into the stump of his right leg, trudged gamely on crutches up the steep hill toward the school bus.
His host father and the family dog walked by his side, a morning ritual they replay each school day.
For some foreign-exchange students, a year at an American high school opens up new opportunities.
For Temirov, it's given him a new leg, an artificial limb emblazoned with the stars and stripes of the American flag.
His story connects Plentywood, in Montana's northeastern corner, with Tajikistan, a Muslim country in central Asia, a country that sits on Afghanistan's northern border and was under communist rule until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Temirov's life in America has proved to be an unusual journey, not only for him but also for the host family that opened its home to him, the community of Plentywood that welcomed him and the Billings man who fabricated Temirov's new leg and gave it as a gift.
At 17, Temirov, nicknamed Phil, is a powerfully built teen who is quick to crack a joke or a smile. With a mop of thick black hair, he has been mistaken for American Indian. When he's puzzled by a word or unfamiliar expression, he furrows thick black eyebrows and crinkles his nose.
At school, teachers say he tries.
“He tries so hard,” said Jane DeTienne, a barber in Plentywood who acts as the local coordinator for the FLEX foreign-exchange program, a program under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.
For most teens, high school is about fitting in.
But for Temirov, this school year has been more about standing out. He speaks heavily accented English, his fourth language after Russian, Persian and his native Tajik. Although he is not devout, he is a Muslim in a predominantly Christian culture. And then there's the leg.
Temirov was born with a birth defect that caused his leg to dangle uselessly.
“When I was a kid, it was like every time I would like to try to hide my leg,” Temirov said.
In Tajikistan, he underwent a dozen unsuccessful surgeries to fix the problem. Then, last year, a Tajik doctor amputated his leg above the knee. After each surgery, Temirov was given no pain medication, only antibiotics.
His first artificial limb hinged at the knee by a bolt. It fit so poorly that it would slip off.
“Sometimes, the leg's in the sky, and I'm on the ground,” Temirov said. “Like if I kick the ball. The ball would fly, and my leg would fly after the ball.”
His new “American” leg has given him a sense of confidence and, perhaps, a new beginning.
Since getting the prosthesis in September, he no longer tries to hide his leg. For the first time in his life, he can run, if only for a few yards.
“I show it to everybody,” he said. “Everybody wants to see the American flag, and, when I show the stars, especially they like the stars.”
At an after-school Halloween party for children in Plentywood, Temirov dressed as Uncle Sam, wearing a red, white and blue bow tie and showing the stars and stripes on his leg under his shorts. He twisted balloons into animal shapes to give to the children, DeTienne said.
“I would hope that we would be as proud of an American flag as he is,” DeTienne said.
Though most Americans would be hard-pressed to find Tajikistan on a map, many of Plentywood's residents have gotten to know several Tajik exchange students.
Temirov is the fifth student from Tajikistan hosted by Joy and Del Kranzler, a couple who live in a small, squarish house on the edge of Plentywood. The house, with its bright aqua shutters, is tucked in the bottom of a coulee near a corral for the couple's horses.
Del, who has lived in Plentywood since 1968, is a spry 70-year-old who shovels the long driveway and swings easily onto a horse. He grew up on a farm southeast of Terry and retired after 36 years with the Montana Highway Patrol.
Joy, whose e-mail address is “mulefool,” has worked for the past seven years as a Sheridan County dispatcher. She is also an emergency medical technician, has run a massage business and worked for 18 years at KATQ radio in Plentywood.
Joy's sister, Linda Knick, of Plentywood, persuaded the couple to take their first exchange student. Knick hosted nine exchange students from various countries while her daughter was growing up. Although Del has two grown daughters from a previous marriage, Joy has never had children.
“I was never able to have children, so I've just been adopting them,” she said.
Their first Tajik foreign-exchange student, Intizor Aliyorov, nicknamed “Zor,” is now a junior at the University of Montana majoring in finance with a minor in math and economics. He plans to spend Christmas break with Kranzlers. Another of “their boys,” who is in college in Nebraska, is spending the Thanksgiving holiday with them.
Over the years, Montanans have helped their Tajik teens with everything from eye glasses to college admissions.
“It's just amazing to me how many people have really come out of the woodwork to help these kids,” Joy said.
When the Kranzlers chose their first exchange student through the FLEX program, the couple knew almost nothing about Tajikistan, but they purposely picked a student from an impoverished country.
“Our house isn't fancy,” Del said.
Their spare bedroom is in the basement, next to the washer and dryer. They figured a student from a poor country would be more appreciative of what they could provide.
Because their first experience, with Zor, was so positive, they kept requesting Tajik students.
“These are the best-behaved kids that I have ever run into in my entire life,” Joy said. “They're very family-oriented, and they're incredibly respectful, honest and kind. They're extraordinarily honorable. They've never broken the rules. I have never had one tell me a lie. I've never had one of them even fudge the truth.”
Zor's father learned English so that he could e-mail the Kranzlers and repeatedly invited them to visit Tajikistan. Last summer, Del, who had never traveled overseas, and DeTiene, visited Tajikistan for several weeks, relying on Zor as their guide.
Still, the Kranzlers hesitated when they were asked to host a handicapped Tajik boy. The driveway from their house to the bus stop was steep. The spare bedroom was at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Winter in Plentywood can be brutal.
But Temirov's story touched them.
Even before he arrived, Joy tried to figure out ways to minimize Temirov's disability. She hit the jackpot when she walked into the Billings office of Rimrock Prosthetics. Jim Middleton, a prosthetist, volunteered to look at Temirov's artificial limb.
The old knee was “quite literally just a bolt,” Middleton said.
Middleton applied to the Barr Foundation, a nonprofit that assists amputees, to supply Temirov with a more sophisticated hydraulic knee joint. Middleton spent about 20 hours finding parts, fabricating and fitting the artificial limb. The limb, which might have cost $40,000, was done for free.
During college, Middleton volunteered at a Shriner's hospital, working on prosthetic limbs. For a long time, he had nurtured dreams of traveling to Third World countries to fabricate artificial limbs.
“It was kind of like an opportunity came to me, like it was delivered to me,” Middleton said.
In early September, he swapped out Temirov's artificial foot for a better-fitting one.
“Every time he sees me, he hugs me,” Middleton said.
Before creating the leg's stars and stripes, he repeatedly asked whether the design would cause trouble for Temirov once he returned home.
Tajiks are generally friendly toward the West, Temirov said. While more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, there was a concerted campaign of secularization under Soviet rule, and only a small proportion of the urban population follows the religious ritual of daily prayers.
The presence of the Kranzlers' exchange students in Plentywood has been an eye-opener for Americans who tend to lump together all Muslims as radicals and terrorists.
At school, the Tajik exchange students have been exceptional students, said Rob Pedersen, the principal at Plentywood High.
“They've been good role models for our kids, just in how hard they work,” he said. “They just pour their heart and soul into their academics.”
The high school, which has a total enrollment of 124, usually hosts about three exchange students a year, he said. This year, Temirov and an Italian teen are the only two foreign students.
Although the language barrier always causes some difficulties, it doesn't take the foreign students long before “they soar,” Pedersen said.
Temirov, who dreams of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, has been game to try most anything, from horseback riding to bowling. He's planning to try out golfing this spring. He has been particularly appreciative of things that Montanans have done for him, and, unlike the average high school student, he likes the school lunch.
Plentywood's teens know the Tajik students are Muslim, but it doesn't seem to get in the way of them establishing friendships, especially once they're involved in extracurricular activities, said Larry Henderson, a history and geography teacher at the high school.
In mid-November, Temirov used a wheelchair for a few days at school after he developed soreness from ingrown hairs on the stump of his amputated leg. He rolled quickly through the school's halls in the wheelchair, using his good leg to push off against the floor. Although he could manage it himself, other teens kept volunteering to push the chair and carry his books.
In study hall, Temirov joked easily with another teen in between reading “Brothers Karamazov,” a Russian novel that he has already read in Russian. As he bowed his head over the book, he rocked the wheelchair back and forth with his left foot. When the last bell rang, before heading to the bus, he slipped into an office to exchange the wheelchair for his crutches.
Friends often ask the Kranzlers why they've hosted so many Tajik students.
“It's really our own very small investment in America,” Joy said.
In some parts of the world, America, unfortunately, has a bad reputation, she said. When her exchange students go home, if they hear someone disparage America, she hopes her boys with tell a different story.
“I want them to be able to go home and say, 'No, Americans are not perfect, but you know, they're just like us.' ”
Contact Donna Healy at email@example.com or 657-1292.