Journey With Abdul Hakeem

A young victim of the war in Iraq travels

to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery

First of two parts

click here to read part two

Written and photographed for the San Jose Mercury News


        He was the face of the war’s toll on Iraqi civilians, his cheek badly scarred and his left eye missing.

       Abdul Hakeem Ismael was a scrawny kid sitting in the middle of the bed in a stark hospital room in Baghdad.  His bony knees pulled up to his chest, he alternately eye me, and his yellow toy truck as I photographed him in June 2004.


         I never imagined I’d see him again.

        But two years later, 8-year-old Abdul Hakeem --  whose face appeared in the Mercury News’ Perspective section in a  year-end essay  about Iraq -- has  come to  American for reconstructive surgery.

        On April 9, 2004, mortar shells apparently fired by U.S. troops, struck his family’s Al-Fallujah home as he was sleeping. The attack came just days after the bodies of U.S. contractors had been

displayed on a bridge in town.  Similar stories are told and retold throughout Iraq by civilians caught in the war’s crossfire.

        “The blood was in my face,” Abdul Hakeem’s father, Ismael Khalaf Hussein,said through a translator.  “I was talking to Abdul Hakeem, but Abdul Hakeem just kept saying ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm’ like he’s injured.”

         By the time I met the boy in June 2004, he was recovering from plastic surgery at Ibn Sina Hospital.  His left cheek had been burned and he had lost his eye.  A breathing tube in his throat and a feeding tube to his stomach had both been recently removed.

        Long after I returned to San Jose, Abdul Hakeem’s face stayed with me.

        There were several efforts to help him. No More Victims, a Los Angeles

non-profit organization that helps Iraqi civilians wounded by U.S. troops, succeeded.  The group, which has brought three other Iraqi children to the United States for treatment, arranged Abdul Hakeem’s trip.  Children’s hospital of Pittsburgh is paying for his treatment. Three doctors and a specialist who makes prosthetic eyes have donated their services, and the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation of Massachusetts is contributing.

        Hospital interpreter Marie Teslovich recalls how Abdul Hakeem said he explained his trip to his friends in Al-Fallujah:  “I’m going to the United States and I’m gonna come back looking completely different and you’re not going to recognize me.”

        In February, Abdul Hakeem and his father landed in New York.

       As their taxi pulled onto the freeway, the boy stared out the window at the lights on the road.  I imagined he was marveling at his first glimpse of America, though we were passing a nondescript neighborhood.  It wasn’t a particularly special welcome. But it was nothing like the dangerous road to Baghdad’s airport.   

        The next morning, they made plans to visit the World Trade Center site. Like the rest of the world, Abdul Hakeem's family had seen the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy on television and wanted to see the place.

        Standing in a crowd of tourists, this tiny Iraqi boy with the scar on his face strained to look up at the displays and the tall buildings. This really was ground zero. Here was the scene of the incident that led to war, that led to Iraq, that led to Al-Fallujah, that led to the mortar shell that hit his house, that brought him to this spot.

        Viewing an exhibit of photos that included a shot of the burning towers, Hussein hung his head, looked up and said sadly to me, ''Salaam,'' which is Arabic for peace.

        ''Inshallah'' I replied, saying the Arabic word for ''God willing.''

        Days later, when we talked about the trip, Hussein told me, ''I felt bad because the ones who died were innocent people. They had nothing to do with government policy. I was saying we want peace for everybody.''

        The next day, we flew to Pittsburgh, where they were greeted by local volunteers from No More Victims and Marian Gumina, a single mother of two boys, who had offered to host the Iraqi father and son. While local reporters at the airport interviewed Hussein, volunteer Chad Hetman and Gumina, Abdul Hakeem slipped off with Gumina's sons, Dominic and Timmie Loper, to play video games at a store in the airport terminal.


         Watching them, my mind contrasted scenes from Iraq with the scene of the three boys. They huddled together around a gleaming table in a store with shelves brimming with souvenirs. It was a long way from the rubble, the crumbling walls and the electrical blackouts of Iraq.


         That first weekend was filled with interviews and cameras. It wasn't long before Abdul Hakeem was something of a celebrity. He was repeatedly stopped by well-wishers during visits to Pitaland, a Middle Eastern market that quickly became a home away from home.

        Timmie and Dominic invited him to go to school with them. Back in Al-Fallujah, children had ridiculed Abdul Hakeem because of his appearance. But in the United States, he was initially excited about school. He was up bright and early.

        Though he was greeted warmly by principal Patricia Washington, he started to bury his face in his coat as he approached the classroom, perhaps fearing a replay of what he faced in Iraq. But it was soon apparent that things would be different here. There were signs welcoming him, children introduced themselves and before long he was just another kid.

        ''The children are aware that we've got a visitor who's injured,'' said Washington. ''Some of the teachers talked about the war . . . so that they're aware that war has a face and this is what that can look like, up close and real personal.''

        At times it was almost possible to forget what had brought Abdul Hakeem to Pittsburgh. People took him to museums and the zoo. They bought him clothes at a children's thrift store and talked about taking him for a boat ride.Watching him chase other boys or spot sea lions for the first time, I couldn't help but flash back to the life I knew he'd left behind in a war zone -- a life to which he would eventually return.

    While grateful for the hospitality extended to his son, Hussein speaks bitterly about the war and its impact on his wife and nine children. His wife, Fadila, was pregnant the night the shell struck their home. She lost the baby when debris cut open her abdomen.

    'The night of the attack I almost lost my mind,'' he said. ''The children are my life. When this happened, I thought I lost everything. We're innocent people. We didn't do anything.''

     His fatigue from the war and occupation were obvious. ''We have three years. Americans killed, Iraqis killed,'' he said. ''You care for your children. We want you to care for our children like you care for your own children.''

        Abdul Hakeem's medical team is made up of plastic surgeon Fred Deleyiannis, ocular plastic surgeon Susan Stefko, oral-maxilofacial surgeon William Chung and ocularist William Tillman. In the past month, Deleyiannis has performed the first of several reconstructive operations and Tillman has given Abdul Hakeem his prosthetic eye. There are several more surgeries to come and Abdul Hakeem will be in Pittsburgh for at least two more months.

        When I asked Abdul Hakeem what he expects, he spoke rapidly in Arabic. The high pitch of his voice filled the room with a strength and emotion that was a far cry from the day we met in the Baghdad hospital. ''I want to fix my face and go back home,'' he declared. ''I miss my brothers and sisters and my friends.''

                                                                                   Click here to read part two