Sunday, July 13, 2008

Healing The Scars Of An Iraqi Child

Children have a lot to learn about life, but they can also offer a lot to teach. I posted recently about the 7-year old who tried to take a bullet for her mother, and an 11-year old who did much to save his neighbors from burning to death, as two examples.

With great thanks to Vicki, we can learn from another remarkable young person, 6-year old Youssif. Despite living through a nightmare few of us dare to try to imagine, Youssif's faith in a hopeful future has much to teach us older folks prone to despair... providing we have the humility to admit we can learn from a child.

You may already have been following the story; I hadn't, therefore Vicki's thorough coverage (over 20 updates!) made for some intense, emotional reading. Here are the highlights to an incredible story of the healing process underway for a small boy, his family and our own capacity to renew our faith in humanity's ability to choose to do Good.

The story began in January 2007, but the world didn't hear about it until August of that year:


Five-year-old Youssif is scarred for life, his once beautiful smile turned into a grotesquely disfigured face -- the face of a horrifying act by masked men. They grabbed him on a January day outside his central Baghdad home, doused him with gas and set him ablaze.

It's an act incomprehensibly savage, even by Iraq's standards today.

"They dumped gasoline, burned me, and ran," Youssif told CNN, pointing down the street with his scarred hands where his attackers fled.

Even things like eating have become a chore. His face contorts when he tries to shovel rice into his mouth, carefully angling the spoon and then using his fingers to push the little grains through lips he can no longer fully open.

After the story aired on US television, Americans by the thousands asked, as they do so often: "What can we do to help?"

Shortly after Youssif's story aired Wednesday, the Children's Burn Foundation -- a nonprofit organization based in Sherman Oaks, California, that provides support for burn victims locally, nationally and internationally -- agreed to pay for the transportation for Youssif and his family to come to the United States and to set up a fund for donations.

Surgeries will be performed by Dr. Peter Grossman, a plastic surgeon with the affiliated Grossman Burn Center who is donating his services for Youssif's cause.

Donations amounting to over three hundred thousand dollars were quickly collected, enough to allow the family to travel to the US in order to undergo the corrective surgery... arriving on September 11, 2007.

They had traveled more than 7,500 miles to get help for their son, from war-torn central Baghdad to coastal Los Angeles. It marked the first time the family had ever left their homeland, let alone flown on a plane.
"Oh my God, it's so green. Am I in heaven?" Youssif's mother, Zainab, said after arriving in Chicago before the family flew on to Los Angeles where Youssif will be treated.

The healing process seemed to begin just by checking in to their two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the city of angels..:

There was a television, toys everywhere, and a balcony. A crib sat in the kids' bedroom and the kitchen even had a high-chair so that Youssif's sister would be able to eat with them at the table. For the first time in a long time, the family laughed out of pure joy.

Standing on the apartment's balcony, Youssif's father turned to Barbara Friedman, executive director of the Children's Burn Foundation.
"You see America on television, but you never imagine or dream that you will ever be here." He paused, tears in his eyes.
"It's more than paradise."

The family soon got to meet the doctor supervising the series of necessary surgeries, Dr. Peter Grossman:

Perhaps haunted by the pain he suffered in Baghdad's hospitals, Youssif hiccupped back sobs as his father lifted him onto the examination table.

"We're going to do everything we can to move forward and to do a good job," he said.

The boy's mother nodded solemnly. "I just want my son's smile back," she told the doctor.

Who knows how many chapters like the following day at the beach remain unreported every day throughout North America. If only more individuals around the world (and within America, for that matter) could see this side to the American people:

Frightened and excited, the 5-year-old Iraqi boy shrieked and laughed as his father lifted him to safety as each wave crashed around their legs. It was the first time either of them had seen the ocean. [They are approached by someone who recognized the family from seeing their story on television.] The "voice" belonged to a member of the Valley Peak church group from nearby Chatsworth -- having a father and child day at the beach.

"We'd like to pray for Youssif and his family. Can you ask if they will accept this?"

The reply: "Of course," said Youssif's mother, Zainab.

The group of Christian fathers and children surrounded the boy and his dad, falling to their knees and locking arms. Youssif and his father stood at the center of the circle holding hands. "They are going to need strength and patience, and God, just put your hand on little Youssif and his family," one of them said, head bowed in prayer. ...

Other beachgoers witnessed the scene, joined in and dropped to their knees -- more than 30 people in all. …

Watching the scene, the outpouring of warmth from total strangers, Zainab wept, tears running down her face."I was overcome with emotion," she said later. "Here in America, people were moved by him. Why not in Iraq?"

The stories on the various surgical operations (12 operations in the past year, with more to come) have some harrowing moments, such as the time complications from one operation led to young Youssif's sheets becoming soaked in blood. But still there was progress.

By Saturday he was bouncing around his room. "I ate," he announced proudly. Although his little head was tightly wrapped in bandages, he was able to open his mouth much farther than before.
"Look, Daddy, my mouth is open! I can fit the whole fork into it and I can take big bites!" he said. ...
Youssif -- who was grabbed outside his home by masked men, doused in gas and set on fire January 15 -- remained ecstatic over little things, like being able to stick his tongue out again.
"I can see all my teeth! I can stick my tongue out all the way!" he said to his dad while waiting to leave the hospital.

As the year went on, we can start to see the amazing capacity for renewal of faith that the family dynamic can provide, as parent teaches child, who then teaches parent, how to survive with grace:

[A]lthough Youssif's parents are exceedingly grateful to be in America and receive the best medical care, one realization that doctors warned about is truly beginning to set in -- Youssif's face will never be the same as it once was.
"Sometimes when he sleeps I just look at him and cry. He used to be so beautiful when he slept," his mother, Zaineb, says. ...
Youssif's parents are coping with what every parent of a child burn survivor struggles with. "They want their son to return to the way he was, and it's hard to know and accept that he won't," says Keely Quinn, the program director with the Children's Burn Foundation who has been helping the family adjust.


Youssif's parents are emotionally and mentally spent. They even admit their son has shown more strength throughout this ordeal than they have. To them, it seems their son is winning the battle to overcome his mental and emotional injuries, and he astonishingly seems to take the discomfort of recovery and multiple surgeries in stride.

"Youssif is an amazing survivor and tough little guy," Quinn says. "Compared to his parents, at 5 years old, he doesn't have the ability to see down the road how this will affect him. He just knows he will be 'fixed.' His parents have to deal with much more complex issues -- watching their son suffer, their guilt over the attack, and wondering what the next day will bring."

Which brings us to the latest update, from last week, on Youssif starting school:

Youssif began attending an American school [in january], one year to the day after he was so savagely attacked in Baghdad. In a recent letter to those who have helped his son, Youssif's father described the anniversary as a "very hard day" to endure but one that also brought joy.
"But this year, it was the day for another miracle, Youssif's first day of kindergarten. It was a very happy day," Youssif's father said.

Youssif is adjusting well to school, able to write out the alphabet and count to 12 without hesitation. He always finishes with an accomplished sigh, wide eyes and a smile so big, it's as if he is making up for the 10 months he was not able to smile.

"The kids love Youssif. They get more excited than he does when he learns a new word in English, and they brag about it for hours," the mother of a classmate says.

"Now, Youssif eats anything he wants, because he can open and close his mouth," his father said in the letter. "I have begun to see my son's lively spirit return. The surgeries have removed more than just external scars, they are also beginning to remove his internal scars."

A few weeks ago we went to the park and Youssif rode on the merry-go-round. Every time he passed by, he shrieked and laughed and waved wildly to me.

I thought my heart would burst with happiness."

We rarely appreciate how much we have to be grateful for, but we can at least have our eyes opened to the length of the checklist, courtesy of a small boy whose ability to laugh after such tears should do much to teach us how to do the same, as we learn how to live with faith in a positive future. As we read of young Youssif take pleasure in the simple act of eating, and hear of the comfort his parents derive from the simple sight of him smiling, we can re-learn what it means to taste life, and to be grateful for the bounty of blessings we have too long taken for granted.

To make a donation to the fund established for Youssif by the Children’s burn foundation, go here.
[Thanks again to Vicki for her vigilant updating of this story, for otherwise I might never have heard about it.]

5 comments:

Vancouver visitor said...

Bleeding heart white liberals are exploiting this child so that they can feel good about themselves. If there are, say, 100,000 Youssifs, would they still be as generous? In any case, I appreciate Youssif's propaganda value. Call me a cynical bastard.

Charles Henry said...

vancouver visitor,
the main question is whether your being a bastard is responsible for so much cynicism, or whether your cynicism has resulted in your becoming such a bastard.

If I was as cynical, I would bet on the former.

As to the 100,000 Youssifs question, I have faith that Americans would, in fact, try to give each of them a hand up the ladder, out of the gutter, if there were means to do so.

Who doubts that there are probably millions of Youssifs that are helped by Americans, in all kinds of ways, all over the world, whose situations don't get reported by CNN.

Your instinctive response goes to show that when we look at others, our first reaction tends to be to mostly see ourselves. I didn't see self-centered, self-obsessed people who operate only for reasons of material satisfaction, when I went through these dozens of articles and videos. I couldn't see what you saw, in the behavior on display.

I guess that means I can add "bleeding heart liberal" to traitor, commie, and the other slurs I seem to have been accumulating lately at this blog.

Sometimes, depending on who's doing the insulting, an insult can be quite a badge of honor.

Eowyn said...

Vancouver visitor said: "Call me a cynical bastard."

Okay, you are one.

I just did a Google search using the words "iraq child surgery." Your 100,000 Youssifs quickly popped up.

Speaking as only one American, I can tell you most of have, or would, help any child in need. As Charles Henry said, in the end, they are us. Therefore, I, too, proudly wear the "bleeding heart white liberal" badge.

Charles Henry, thank you for all your hard work on that amazing story.

Charles Henry said...

Thanks Eowyn, but in all honesty, in comparison with the details of this story, I feel I can't accept the compliment of having done "hard work"... reading and wiping away the occasional tear shouldn't be considered hard work. But I appreciate the sentiment..!

Reading stories like Youssif's makes me ashamed for the many times I may have complained about the cuts and bruises I've been dealt by fate, compared to the flames of hell that others have been made to live through... I guess literally so, in this case.

It was as if I could have the temerity to complain about the color of the icing on my birthday cake.

No more whining out of me.

Just hard work.

Eowyn said...

Well responded!

It took a lot of care to present that story so well. I shouldn't confuse that with "hard" work at all.

Plus, I'd also like to add kudos to Vicki.