Wounded Iraqi boy returns to Pittsburgh for face surgery


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Abdul Hakeem Hussein, the wounded Iraqi boy who captured countless hearts during his five-month stay in Pittsburgh for reconstructive facial surgery, returned to the city yesterday for the next stage of treatment.

He is expected to be here for about three months while doctors continue replacing the scar tissue on his left cheek with skin grafts.

Now 9 years old and several inches taller, he is still shy and sweet-tempered. At the Ronald McDonald House in Shadyside, where he and his father are staying, he could only be prodded by translator Marie Teslovich to say a few words of English even though he knows more. But he was quick to smile and shake hands, and said he hoped to visit soon with the friends he made last time around.

Accompanying him on the long trip from Fallujah to Amman, Jordan, to New York to Pittsburgh were his father, Ismael Hussein, and Cole Miller, founder of No More Victims. The nonprofit group (nomorevictims.org) arranges for donated medical treatment in the United States for Iraqi children wounded in the war.

Abdul Hakeem was maimed in 2004, when an American-fired mortar destroyed his house. The left side of his face was badly disfigured, making it hard for him to eat and making him a target for the taunts of other children, so much so that he stopped going to school.

Doctors and medical professionals at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh volunteered their services to repair his jaw, cheek, mouth and eye socket, and to fit him with a prosthetic eye that matches and moves in tandem with its mate.

Much has gotten better in the 17 months since he went home -- and much has grown worse.

The good news is that his life has taken on a degree of normalcy.

Once unable to hold food in his mouth let alone chew it, he now eats normally. The disfigurement that had kept him out of school is so improved, he's now the highest-scoring pupil in his class and able to play freely with other children.

"People who knew him before his trip to the States cried when they saw him for the first time after he came home," said Maki Al-Nazzal, international coordinator for No More Victims, in a phone call from Jordan. Mr. Al-Nazzal ran a clinic in Fallujah during the 2004 siege in which the child was hurt.

"His mother was so happy to see him eating, she was laughing and crying," said his father.

But, Ismael Hussein said, the war has made life in Fallujah a constant struggle. Most days, there is electricity for only a few hours. Running water is scarce and often smells so bad no one wants to use it.

War profiteering is rampant -- a container of propane gas for cooking that used to cost 250 dinar now costs 10 times that amount, so most people can't afford to buy it.

The hospitals have very little medicine, he said, and all the good doctors have been driven out by the violence. People needing surgery have to find their own anesthetic on the black market, which is also the main source of prescription drugs once available at the hospitals.

The city is surrounded by military checkpoints, so coming and going can be a two-hour ordeal each way.

The family's home is still damaged from the mortar attack that wounded Abdul Hakeem as well as his mother, who was pregnant but lost the child due to her injuries. Still, Mr. Hussein said, he's been able to do enough repairs to make the structure livable for the 13 people who reside there.

Worst of all, he said, is the ever-growing number of children killed or maimed by ongoing violence.

"There are many, many children all over Iraq who are not getting proper treatment," he said.

The family was relieved to have arrived in Pittsburgh, especially because the security check in New York was so much worse than the last time around -- even though they've already had two visas issued, both requiring extensive checks.

"We cleared customs and security and went out to grab a cab, but they called us back with more questions," said Mr. Miller. He said he has accompanied many children into the country for medical care and has never experienced anything like what followed.

The grilling took seven hours -- agents were on the phone to Washington, D.C., and Langley, Va., and the list of questions kept growing: Who are your children? (he has 10 others); what kind of cars do they drive? Do you know this person or that? Have you ever been here or there?

"The guys were just doing their jobs and they were nice about it, but it was still grueling," Mr. Miller said. "Ismael was very patient, but I know it hurt his feelings to be treated that way."

Yesterday, the focus was back on improving Abdul Hakeem's face, in a place that has already taken him into its collective heart. Asked what he was most looking forward to in Pittsburgh this time, the boy pointed to the left side of his face and smiled.


Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610. First Published December 7, 2007 5:00 AM


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