When Zubair Trabzada was only 5 years old, he lived with his family in a very nice home at the foot of a mountain in Kabul, Afghanistan, he said.
But his childhood and that home were taken away when warlords -- including one who lived on the mountain -- battled each other for control.
"Everybody was trying to take the mountain," said Zubair, who is 16 now and living in Orchard Park until the end of the school year. "Once, we were praying in a mosque in front of our house and a rocket came in and we couldn't see each other. For one week, we had to stay in the basement in our house."
To escape the warring factions, Zubair's father paid a truck driver to take them to Pakistan in 1993 where they joined relatives. "We had many beautiful and ancient things," said Zubair. "My father was an engineer and had a good salary. We were like one of the rich people, but we went with only three bags of clothes."
They started their new life with $300, using $100 to buy fruit and vegetables, which Zubair and his brothers sold on Pakistani street corners. "So we gained $120 that way," he said. "In the last years, we had five shops."
Returning to Afghanistan in 2001, they found nothing left of their home. Because he had learned English and computers, Zubair could help the family by teaching those subjects, as well as continuing his own education.
"But then I got a headache," he said. "It was so hard to do all that."
Such are the stories that Zubair and 39 other Afghan teenagers (26 boys and 14 girls) bring to this country as part of a State Department program to encourage understanding between the countries.
Besides Zubar, two others are in Western New York: Omer Sadiqi, 16, who is at Orchard Park High School, and Maiwand Shamsi, 15, at Williamsville South High School.
As part of the program, the boys speak to groups about their life in Afghanistan. What they've found is that there are plenty of stereotypes to dispel and lots for them to learn.
"I was giving a presentation to senior citizens the other day and they asked me if we eat bread," said Zubair. Laughing as he tells the story, he said: "Oh, no, we eat stones."
They already know that they will be asked about cell phones, computers, gum, cars and, even grass. "Here, people think that Afghanistan is just mountains, no grass," said Maiwand. "That's because they only show the war scenes. But it's cities and people.
"They think all terrorists are from Afghanistan, but I tell them Osama Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia."
For them, suburbia has been a culture shock, a great contrast to the busy, crowded streets of Kabul and Kandahar. "When I arrived, I saw no one was walking," said Omer. "I was shocked. There isn't the street life here. When I walk outside, it's so boring."
Maiwand explained that Afghan boys typically shop for food and other family needs. "The system of shops is different here," he said. "In Afghanistan, you can walk to a shop. It's fun."
As Muslims, they observed the feast of Ramadan from mid-October to mid-November, which requires fasting from 4 a.m. until 10 minutes after sunset.
Zubair set his alarm so that he could eat in the early hours of the morning. "The problem is we study a lot, so if you fast and your stomach is empty it's harder to study," he said.
In Afghanistan, schools are closed for Ramadan. "It's easier to do the fast here because we are so busy" on weekdays, said Maiwand, adding that it's harder to observe the fast on weekends, especially since they all live in families with other teens.
They pray five times a day, but the times are flexible so they say it's possible to maintain the ritual. "But in our religion, study is also worship," Omer said.
Chosen from a field of 5,000 applicants, these three are serious students (in his interim report card at Williamsville South, Maiwand received 105 in math) and all say they want to become doctors.
"From the time I was 9 years old, I was so interested in learning English," said Omer, explaining why he wanted to come to this country. "I wanted to see how people live, to learn another culture. I'm happy because the thing I wanted, I could pass."
They've found differences in the educational system. In Afghanistan teachers rotate into one classroom, where students remain all day. "You can make deeper friendships," said Maiwand. "Here it's 'hi and bye.'"
Also, boys and girls go to school separately from age 5.
But Zubair said he likes having girls in his classes.
"In my opinion you can have a good competition if girls are there," he said. "If it's all boys and I fail, it's not shame. But I want to get more points than a girl."
Maiwand is particularly grateful for the equipment he can use at Williamsville South. "The Taliban destroyed all our laboratories," he said, "so I could study chemistry from a book, but I couldn't do the practical things."
The boys went through a month-long orientation before arriving in Buffalo to learn what to expect and to understand the rules.
"We can't drive here," said Zubair. "We can't go to Canada. We follow curfews. We can't marry here."
Asked what he likes best, he responded unhesitatingly: "Mighty Taco."
Maiwand, who wrestled in Afghanistan and lifts weights here, has picked up the nickname Schwarzenegger.
Self-confident and outgoing, he was flustered just for a moment when asked about another nickname he's been tagged with -- "a hottie," which he didn't understand when he first heard it.
However, he's beginning to pick up the lingo. When asked who gave him the nickname, he responded: "another hottie."
Each of the boys knows at least two languages and among them they speak English, Dary, Pashto, Urdu, French and Panjabi.
"We learn more because we travel a lot," said Maiwand, who misses his family, which includes a baby brother who was born after he arrived here.
Although the boys and their host families face the challenges inherent in hosting a foreign student, especially when there are same-age siblings, those involved say that it's been a rewarding experience.
"I'm very impressed with their maturity and sense and humor and courage to come to this country," said Vanessa Futrell Hartman, the host mother for Omer. "They are here to learn about America, but our role is to learn as much about them as we can."