Zahid Munir was just 4 years old, a little Pakistani boy playing with other children in a two-story house where families had gathered for a wedding, when suddenly something, perhaps a careless cigarette, set off a cache of wedding fireworks.
The explosion and fire filled the children's room with hot, acrid smoke. Other kids ran, but Zahid couldn't see any way out. So he hid.
"I get under a blanket," Zahid said. "That saved my life."
Hours later, when the fire was extinguished and the adults finally found him, he was barely breathing. They rushed the boy to a hospital.
The doctor told his parents he had only a 20 percent chance to live.
Little did the doctor know that little Zahid had a spirit that didn't give up.
He had suffered terrible, disfiguring burns over more than half his body.
Though the left side of Zahid's face was fine, the entire right side was badly burned. He lost his right eye, his right ear and the fingers of his left hand, and suffered burns from his neck to his feet.
He spent one year in the hospital in Pakistan and underwent years of painful skin grafts and surgeries, which continue today. Though doctors improved his appearance, strangers were often shocked or scared the first time they saw him.
Despite all his trials, Zahid Munir, now 23 and living in Montana, doesn't sit around feeling sorry for himself.
Instead he is remarkably positive and cheerful. He is working hard to make the best possible life for himself.
He talks about his dreams -- more medical treatment, an education, a good job and someday a wife and family.
"It would help me feel normal as everyone," Zahid said in pretty good English during an interview in a Montana State University student lounge. He wore an Ennis Mustangs ball cap and MSU sweatshirt. "I'm still hopeful. I believe in myself and things will work out for me. In my life, everything goes well, but it takes time.
"If you give up, it's not going to help," he said. "So why not be positive and ... look for things to improve yourself."
That attitude is inspiring to the Montanans who know Zahid best -- his host family in Ennis, his teacher in Bozeman and the Bozeman plastic surgeon who has volunteered his services to improve Zahid's appearance and quality of life.
"One thing that impresses me each time when I see him is his happiness and happy outlook in life," Dr. William Mealer said. "It's refreshing.
"He just doesn't want to be beaten by the stresses and unkindness in the world," Mealer said. "He's honest and practical and brave. He makes the best of a difficult world."
Two years ago, Zahid was walking down a street in the Township area of his hometown Lahore, a city of 6 million, when a man approached, saying he and his friends were Taliban. They wanted Zahid to be a suicide bomber.
"Anybody who has a disability in Pakistan, the terrorists want him or her to be a suicide bomber, because they believe they can't have a normal life," Zahid said. "I don't believe that."
Reports by National Public Radio and other news organizations confirm that the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan often recruit as suicide bombers those people who are partially blind or have missing limbs, cancer, leprosy, mental illness or other disabilities.
Scared, Zahid told the Taliban recruiter he needed to discuss the matter with his father. A week later, the men accosted him on the street again. This time they said it was his last chance to decide. He went home, depressed and afraid.
"It was a life and death decision," Zahid said. "Become a suicide bomb(er) or they would kill you."
But his father, who runs a grocery and pharmacy, told him to just stay indoors for one more week, because he was scheduled to fly out of Pakistan. After years of trying to return to the United States, Zahid had finally been granted a visa to come for medical treatment.
The first time America came to his rescue, Zahid was 11 years old.
He was playing pool when a man spotted him and said that a team of Americans was coming to help injured Pakistani children.
So Zahid and his dad went to a big hotel where the Lahore Rotary Club was meeting. He was examined by a team from Healing the Children, a nonprofit based in Spokane, Wash., whose volunteers provide medical care to needy children around the world.
Out of thousands of Pakistani children, just five were selected to come to the United States for treatment. Zahid was chosen, along with four girls.
"I was very lucky," he said.
With a plane ticket, paid for by the Sufi Soap company, Zahid flew to Portland, Ore., in 1999 for a 10-month stay. He was met at the airport by his host family, David and Elisabeth Mann, a veterinarian and a nurse.
"When I first saw him at the airport, I knew that he was my child," Elisabeth said. "I took him in my arms."
Having no children of her own, she volunteered with Healing the Children to help Third World children get medical treatment. Zahid was the first of about nine children she would take on as a foster mom.
Life in Oregon was tough at first for Zahid, who was homesick, spoke no English and was often in pain.
"He was very popular in (elementary) school," Elisabeth said. "Everybody thought he was very brave. He had many bandages on."
Surgeons and medical staff at a Shriners' hospital and teaching hospitals volunteered their services to give him several skin grafts, taking healthy skin from his back or legs to make repairs. Doctors divided the damaged block of his left hand to give him some ability to grasp objects.
It was "absolutely" painful, Zahid said. When the doctor told him a new graft was necessary, he might be afraid at first, but he then would make up his mind to go ahead.
"He can deal with setbacks," Elisabeth said proudly. "He doesn't give up."
That trait was encouraged by David, his host dad, who had a ranch in Oregon and entered cutting horse competitions. Elisabeth said if Zahid would start to cry, David would tell him, "‘Cowboy up!'"
"I didn't cut him very much slack," David said, chuckling.
Zahid spent hours watching David train cutting horses. Two weeks before flying home, the boy entered his first junior cutting horse competition.
They had to tie the reins to his damaged left hand with a big rubber band, and he held onto the saddle with his good right hand. That's how Zahid became probably the only kid in Lahore, Pakistan, to win a cutting horse belt buckle.
That year in America was "the happiest of my life," Zahid said. He went home feeling, "Anything is possible."
The Manns continued to help Zahid in Pakistan, sending money for his schooling and even for a heart operation for his dad, the family breadwinner.
Today the Manns, who moved to Montana after David retired, are sponsoring Zahid's visit. They also cover whatever medical expenses aren't donated by doctors, who have been very generous in charging minimal fees, Elisabeth said.
One of the big things the Manns did, Zahid said, was pay for a Billings doctor to give him an artificial right eye, to fill the empty socket that had given his face a scary appearance.
"Having an eye helps a lot in my feeling, my happiness," Zahid said.
"They've been like real parents," he said of the Manns. "I am so blessed. I hope they live long. They are very nice people. Unbelievable."
"He's an outstanding young man," David Mann said. "He has immigrant vigor. He's excited about the chance to be here and subsequently, he tries harder than most, works harder.
"He's a great kid."
On June 9, Zahid stood to speak before a few hundred people gathered in Bozeman High School's South Gym. It was a graduation ceremony for dozens of students who had earned their GEDs, the equivalent of a high school diploma.
It had been a difficult struggle for Zahid to reach that milestone.
In Pakistan, Zahid said, his principal of his religious school was more interested in having him go door to door to raise money than in having him in class learning.
Friends told his parents he was being used as a beggar. He finally gave up on school and went to work for his dad's grocery and pharmacy.
One of his most depressing times came in 2005, when his application for a U.S. student visa was rejected. But in 2008, after nine years of trying, a temporary U.S. medical visa was approved.
He is "very persistent," Elisabeth said.
Too old for Ennis High School, Zahid enrolled in Bozeman's GED program. He passed the math test easily, but struggled with writing and history.
When he finally passed all his exams, Ellen Guettler, Bozeman schools' adult and basic literacy coordinator, asked Zahid to be a graduation speaker.
"He is very dedicated and very tenacious," Guettler said. "He was just so committed to his learning, it was inspirational to all of us."
Standing before the Bozeman High audience, he read a poem he had written.
"Life is beautiful," Zahid said. "Life is like a present for human beings so they may enjoy this beautiful world."
Afterward he talked about his dreams -- to become a pharmacy technician, like his father, and to find a "loveable" girl to marry.
Zahid said he wanted to attend the one-year pharmacy technician training program in Missoula, but found the cost for an out-of-state student, around $15,000, too expensive. As a foreign student, he's not eligible for financial aid.
Undaunted, Zahid is looking for a job with a pharmacy to gain experience.
Meanwhile, he has been working as a stocker at the grocery store in Ennis. He is proud to have a U.S. work permit and Social Security number.
Living in his own place for the first time, he has been learning to cope with things like vacuum cleaners and cooking for himself.
Zahid has applied for asylum in the United States, based on the danger that if he returns to Pakistan, the Taliban would coerce him into being a suicide bomber. He said he loves America and hopes to be able to stay.
He's still seeing Dr. Mealer, who is working on plans for plastic surgery that could give him a right eyebrow, improve his facial skin and make his artificial eye look more natural.
Most people understand about his appearance, Zahid said, but a few days ago, a girl at the store laughed at him.
"I was really disappointed," he said. "I thought, ‘That's not fair, why are you making fun of me?'"
Many people have told him there must be a reason God let him live. When he talks about his future, he dreams of becoming a pharmacist, to help other people who are suffering.
"I like the medical field. It is the best way to help human beings," Zahid said. "The only thing I have learned in my life is to help people."
Zahid Munir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.