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Afghan student, math teacher clash at California college

Abdul Haris Hamdard put his life on the line assisting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He never imagined his American math teacher might suspect him of terrorism one day.

Joe Eitel, who's taught math to migrant youths and inner-city kids and devoted his life to helping struggling students, never thought he'd be accused of discrimination.

The Afghan refugee and the math teacher have come to tears over their clash at Folsom Lake College, where Hamdard got an F in Eitel's math class. When Hamdard, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, couldn't get two of his tests back and kept missing Eitel at his office, he quipped, "What else does he want me to do? Put gas on me and burn myself?"

Eitel – whose wife taught at Placerville's Schnell Elementary School when Principal Sam LaCara was shot to death by a janitor last year – didn't find Hamdard's remark funny. "I definitely felt at risk," Eitel said. He reported it to his supervisor, who called campus police about a potential terrorist threat. The police searched Hamdard's backpack and asked him, "Why do you want to kill yourself?"

Now, the bucolic campus has become a staging ground for a drama born of the 9/11 era that is playing out in an intersection of fear, misunderstanding and academic frustration.

Hamdard, who plans to get his degree in business administration, said his remark is just a common Afghan expression.

He asked Folsom Lake business law professor Howell Ellerman to help him file discrimination complaints with the college and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. Hamdard alleges he got an F because of his race and nationality.

He said his family has faced discrimination ever since they came to California in 2008. "My next-door neighbor said 'Go back to Afghanistan.' A county welfare worker said 'I hate Afghanistan.' "

The Taliban forbid women to go to school, so Hamdard and his wife, Shazia, a journalist, came to the United States so their four daughters, ages 6 to 16, could get an education.

Selsela, the oldest, sobbed last week at the dining room table over her rice and beans. "I miss my grandfather, my cousins, we had a beautiful life," she said, "but the Taliban was searching for my dad, they were chopping off the heads of interpreters who worked for the U.S."

The son of a high school teacher and a telecommunications adviser to the Afghan government, Hamdard got his degree in economics from Kabul University and taught English and math.

For eight years, he distributed food and medical supplies to more than 50 hospitals for the Ministry of Health. He worked security for Afghan Airlines, then was an accountant for the Afghanistan Bank.

Hamdard and his wife were raised Muslim, but in Folsom converted to Christianity because they hated the repressive Taliban regime. When the Taliban once discovered Shazia was wearing white shoes made in America, "they beat me with TV cables," she said.

Speaking five languages – Pashtu, Dari, Farsi, Urdu and English – Hamdard was hired as a translator for U.S. special forces in northern Afghanistan in 2002. He ran checkpoints for Strategic Security Solutions International, a private firm providing security to Western dignitaries. In 2006, he worked for the U.S. Army near the U.S. Embassy.

His visa application was backed by Army historian Andrew Grimes, who said Hamdard had risked his life to support U.S. troops – "his efforts have contributed immensely to this command."

His wife said she's enjoying her newfound freedom, painting her nails blue, red, yellow, orange and pink and worshipping at Lakeside Church. "We accept any religion," she said.

Hamdard said he respects Eitel as a professor but feels he wasn't treated fairly. He said he got perfect grades on his homework and was led to believe he had passed.

Eitel, 60, said he has always helped minority students, including Hamdard, and made them feel welcome. His door is covered with Peanuts cartoons: "Love is listening without interrupting love is looking out for your friends ..."

In 32 years of teaching, a tearful Eitel said, he's never had a single discrimination complaint. "I'm sure he's a great guy," he said, "but in today's setting, people take it seriously when someone talks about setting fire to himself on campus."

Ever since the principal's murder at Schnell Elementary, "I take things more seriously than other people, because people can get upset and come back and kill you," Eitel said. "Had he said the same thing at an airport, he would have been put on the no-fly list."

Eitel said his Mormon faith teaches him to "be slow to judge and quick to forgive." He added that he's written books for at-risk students, posted larger sections of textbooks online for free and made room for immigrant students.

Campus Vice President Kathleen Kirklin investigated Hamdard's complaint and had the F expunged from his record, because Eitel shredded two tests without returning them.

But she concluded there was no discrimination.

"It's a huge misunderstanding," she said. While it may be perfectly normal for an Afghan to express frustration by joking about setting himself on fire, "in U.S. culture, saying something like that can be threatening and scare people," Kirklin said. "It could be construed as a terrorist threat, but no one ever said he was acting like a terrorist."

Hamdard said the U.S. Constitution bans discrimination, and wants an apology. The Los Rios board of trustees will hear the case July 11.