By Kelly King Alexander
In his red-and-white school uniform, Inayat Hayati, 14, fits right in with his classmates as he pecks at a keyboard in a classroom at Tara High School, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When asked if he's tempted to check his page on Bebo (one of the plethora of social-networking sites popular with teens), the freshman sounds just like his Southern peers, too. "No, ma'am," he says with a slight drawl, pointing to a large sign on the wall that warns GET ON THE INTERNET AND GET A ZERO.
But Inayat (pronounced e-NIGH-ut) could hardly be more different from the other students in his computer class. One of few immigrants among them, Inayat was born in Afghanistan, fled with his family to Pakistan to escape the Taliban when he was a toddler, and relocated to south Louisiana (and considerable culture shock) when he was just 10. He thinks in Farsi, speaks English, and will study Spanish next year.
When he started the fourth grade in 2003, Inayat spoke only one word of English -- elephant ("I saw it in a picture book," he says) -- and had never heard of basketball. Yet the newcomer was so eager to make friends that when some older boys asked him to join in a game of hoops, he readily agreed, thinking it would be similar to soccer, which his dad and brother played. "The first time they passed the ball to me, I hit it with my head," he recalls with a grin. "For two minutes they laughed. Then they started to teach me."
Now Inayat checks the NBA Web site daily, idolizes the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade and recently got a small backyard basketball hoop from his parents. He practices jump shots with friends and plays virtually on his PlayStation 2, regularly beating older brother Hasib, 19. "Most of my friends are immigrants," Inayat says, referring to a close-knit group from his days at an ESL (English as a second language) middle school that includes an African, a Russian, two Canadians, and several Mexicans, "and we all love basketball."
The fourth of five children, Inayat has few memories of Afghanistan or the terrible turmoil that drove his family from their home. But he venerates his country's trademark sport of kite running -- immortalized in Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel The Kite Runner -- which was responsible for one childhood episode he can't forget. He and Hasib were flying a kite from the roof of a Pakistani apartment complex when Inayat, then 7, fell four stories to a neighbor's paved patio. He broke an arm and a leg and was left with a permanent limp, but the accident made barely a dent in his passion for kite running. "We pulled him back up on the roof with his two casts on," Hasib recalls, laughing.