Journey With Abdul Hakeem

A young victim of the war in Iraq travels

to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery

Second of two parts

click here to read part one

Written and photographed for the San Jose Mercury News


        The long wait was finally over: It was time for the last surgery and home was on the horizon.

        Six months after arriving in Pittsburgh with his father for reconstructive surgery, Abdul Hakim Ismael -- the Iraqi boy who was badly wounded when a mortar shell fired by U.S. forces hit his family home in Al-Fallujah two years ago -- made the final trek to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh with his father, Ismael Khalaf Hussein.

        The routine was the same. More papers to sign. Medication to make the boy drowsy. A gurney ride to pre-op and more medication. Father and son performed the same teary-eyed ritual they had twice before. The 7-year-old boy cried from discomfort and confusion; his father from love and compassion. Both dabbed their eyes.

        Six months ago, they traveled to Pennsylvania hoping doctors could erase the damage war had done to Abdul Hakeem's face.

        The boy had lost his left eye on April 9, 2004, and his cheek was badly scarred. During his time in Pittsburgh, doctors implanted a prosthetic eye, repaired the tissue around his mouth and worked to replace much of the sprawling scar. The hospital and a private foundation underwrote the surgeries and the doctors donated their time.

        Abdul Hakeem had told his friends in Iraq that he was going to America to get a new face. When the bandages came off, he seemed almost disappointed. His eyelid and cheek still needed to heal. The final result wasn't as perfect as he'd envisioned.

        But everyone else involved thought the transformation was remarkable.

        Before, he had stared out from behind one blank white eye and one brown eye. Now he had two beautiful brown eyes. Thick scar tissue had made it difficult for him to open and close his mouth. Now it was easier. His lower eyelid no longer sagged and the scar across his cheek was far less noticeable.

        But a lot more than Abdul Hakeem's appearance had changed since he and his father arrived.

        The small boy who gingerly stepped across a broad expanse of freshly fallen snow in February now splashed rambunctiously  in a large swimming pool. The Iraqi victim of war who communicated solely in Arabic when he arrived now chattered away in  English with  his  new  friends.  He celebrated  a birthday -- his seventh -- and visited  an amusement park.

        For his father, things changed far less. He worried about his nine children and wife back in Iraq, where violence was spiraling \out of control. He called home at least once a day.

        ''There is no war in Pittsburgh. The people in Iraq are frustrated with three years of war, destruction, killing, no water, no electricity,'' Hussein said. It pained him that here he saw people with no fear while in Iraq, he had seen ''children who are suffering, torn apart, being victims of the bombing and the war.''

        Though figures on the numbers of Iraqi civilians wounded since the war began vary widely, the group Iraq Body Count estimates 60,000 people have been wounded, about a third of those by U.S.-led forces. The figures are based on media reports.

        But Hussein, too, made new friends and came away with a different impression of Americans. ''When I walk in the streets or . . . out for any reason I meet the people,'' Hussein said. ''I discover that they are very kind people. It's a big contrast between what I saw of the people in this country and the armed forces in Iraq,'' whom he described as ''cruel.''

        Though grateful for the kindness of Americans, he was frustrated that few seemed to care about what's happening in Iraq, especially reports of atrocities such as the alleged rape and killing of a young girl by U.S. soldiers.

        The weekend before Abdul Hakeem's last operation, Hussein quizzed his Pittsburgh hosts about the timetable. When would he be able to fly home? Could someone make the reservations now? Who was buying the tickets? Can we call today?

        The long goodbye began.

        First, there was a barbecue at the home of Dan Kovalik, a lawyer for the United Steelworkers who coordinated their stay in Pittsburgh for No More Victims, the Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that brought Abdul Hakeem and his father to the United States. A small crowd gathered in the living room.

        ''These people are one of us,'' said Kovalik, referring not just to the boy and his father but to other Iraqi civilians caught in the war's cross-fire. ''We've learned many things.''

        He talked about how the past six months had brought together members of the Muslim and non-Muslim communities who oppose the war and expressed hope that the bond would remain.

        Everyone tried to coax Abdul Hakeem into giving a speech. Curled up in rocking chair, the boy shook his head. Eventually he stood in the center of the crowd, crossed his legs and hunched his shoulders. Smiling his charismatic smile, he mustered only a faint, ''Thank you.''

        The day before they left, a friend bought Abdul Hakeem a Superman costume. This small victim of the war puffed out his chest and leaped repeatedly from a chair. But the next day, the small superhero met his match. As he and his father prepared to leave, Abdul Hakeem hung his head. He draped his body over the luggage in the hallway and lay listlessly in the van while his father and host, Abdel-Moniem El-Ganayni, weighed the bags to make sure they weren't too heavy. Abdul Hakeem's body language said more about his sadness over leaving than his English ever could.

        Unlike his son, Hussein had mixed feelings about leaving.

        ''I'm sad and happy at the same time,'' he said. ''I'm happy because I'm going back to Iraq but I'm sad because I'm leaving so many people that I love in Pittsburgh.''

        He rattled off a list of names: Marian Gumina, their first host; Maria Roberts, who drove them to their appointments; Kovalik; El-Ganayni and Mabruk Eshnuk, Muslims who opened their homes to him and his son.

       At the airport, the story came full circle. Kovalik, who had held up the sign welcoming them in February, was there. So were El-Ganayni and Eshnuk. Gumina came with her two sons and ex-husband.

        During the flight to New York, both father and son stared out the window. Abdul Hakeem seemed to be watching the clouds. Hussein, alternately tightened his lips, shook his head and wiped his eyes.

        The boy who was the face of war would now face the future in a country still racked by violence. But his father had no doubts about taking his son home.

        ''I'm not afraid at all because this is my country and I love it,'' Hussein said, adding, ''Everything is in the hands of Allah.

        ''And it was Allah who helped Abdul Hakeem through other people. I am sure that had he not been here in America for treatment, Allah would have found another way for him to get help. Because why would Allah let him down?''

Abdul Hakeem and his father arrived back home in Al-Fallujah on July 27 after spending the night in Amman, Jordan.


part 1   part 2