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Sunday, June 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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From Iraq to Seattle: a little boy's journey of hope

Seattle Times staff reporter

Healing the Children


Founded in 1981 by a Spokane woman who lost her adopted daughter to an easily curable illness because early care wasn't available in her native South Korea, Healing the Children has 14 chapters throughout the United States. Some 5,000 children from 65 countries and the United States have been helped through the program, which matches children who have medical needs that can't be met where they live, with volunteer doctors, hospitals and foster families.

Healing the Children also sends medical teams around the world to screen children, train local doctors and provide on-site surgeries.

For more information, contact Healing the Children at 425-252-4505 or www.wa.healingthechildren.org

The Iraq war's youngest victims


From the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 through March 2005, nearly 25,000 civilians were killed. Of them, 9.3 percent were children ages 2 through 17. Fifty-one were 2 years old or younger. From November 2005 to February 2006, 64 children died and 57 were injured in 417 attacks on Iraqi schools.

• A large percentage of the children are injured by bombs dropped from aircraft or by explosive devices such as cluster bombs they find unexploded on the ground.

• In the third year of the occupation — March 2005 to March 2006 — 12,617 civilians were killed.

• Of 22,000 homes surveyed in 2005 as part of a United Nations-sponsored project, one-third of all children were malnourished and 9 percent were acutely malnourished, a condition severe enough to affect childhood development.

• Six percent of Iraqi children ages 10 to 14 have lost their fathers, as have 13 percent of youths ages 15 to 19.

Source: UNICEF and Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit

His wails ring through the clinic long before doctors touch the thick scars on his face or peer into his remaining eye. Muhammed Hussein is blind, only 3, and speaks no English, but somehow he knows from the moment he sits in his foster mother's lap in the examination chair that the wound left by a bullet is once again going to be probed.

Muhammed's foster mother, Julie Robinett Smith, offers him his favorite snack, Raisinets.

"He can go from sad to happy really fast," she says as he seizes the box and happily shakes it.

The chocolate-covered treat would offer only temporary relief.

After months in hospitals in his native Iraq and later Iran, Muhammed has come to dread visits to the doctor, even those half a world away in Seattle. The touch of rubber gloves, cold metal on his skin or the pressure of fingers on his face triggers an indelible fear and a reminder of the day 13 months ago when he was shot from close range with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Muhammed's odyssey from 2-year-old boy living in a war-ravaged country has led him to an examination room at Seattle's Swedish Medical Center through the work of Healing the Children, a Spokane-based organization that aids sick and injured children from foreign countries.

Back home in Iraq, his family prays daily for him and hopes his vision will be restored in one eye and the misshapen flesh transformed into the nose, forehead and cheeks of a little boy. But doctors here are hesitant to promise much. The months that have passed since the shooting and some of the early medical procedures have made the boy's condition only worse.

"My guess is he's not seeing very much," says Seattle eye surgeon Thomas Gillette as he shines a bright light into Muhammed's filmy eye.

"We do have some hurdles," adds fellow physician David Epley.

Muhammed's story has become a common one in Iraq, a country roiling in violence that increasingly makes victims of children. According to UNICEF, militants have widened their targets to include schools, often kidnapping, maiming and killing children.

From the U.S. invasion in 2003 through March 2005, nearly 25,000 civilians have been killed, more than 9 percent of them children. From November 2005 to February 2006, 64 children died and 57 were injured in 417 attacks on Iraqi schools.

To be young in Iraq — 50 percent of the population is younger than 18 — means growing up in a violent, unstable society where playing in the neighborhood is risky and attending school could invite death.

When Muhammed and his grandmother arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on May 17, the first sounds of his new world — English, a language unfamiliar to him — soared over his head. After his grandmother returned to Iraq, he slipped into the arms of Smith, easily adapting to the woman who would be his foster mother during the coming months.

When Muhammed cries, it's the words from Smith, whom he calls "Auntie," that soothe him. The jingle of her earrings, the scent of her perfume, the brush of her unveiled hair against his face and feel of her denim jacket are constant reminders he is in a new and different world.

At the Snohomish home where Smith lives with her husband, Randy Smith, and daughters Erika, 20, and Alexa, 18, Muhammed stops to listen for a new sound, walks with hands outstretched to feel his way around. He navigates through a forest of gilt end-tables and the trunks of wood furniture, slips on sleek oak floors and listens with trepidation to the barking of the poodles, Tiffany and Roger. Pet dogs are unheard of in Iraq.

At first, he rejected the strange food like pizza and salad, but once he found favorites, he hoarded them — stuffing his mouth and pockets full of pistachio nuts and trying to hide a bag of Cheerios.

It took only a few days before Muhammed slowly relaxed into his new surroundings, becoming fond of Chicken McNuggets, Mexican food and discovering Raisinets. He is learning English words: "good boy," "thank you" and "go home," which he says with a child's earnestness as he pulls Smith's hand whenever an outing becomes tedious.

In an Izod jacket, striped rugby shirt and brown leather sandals, he's as stylish as Smith, who pushes him in a stroller through shopping malls. She talks proudly of how he can sing his ABCs, count from one to 10 and say "I love you."

"Love you, love you, love you," the family tells him.

"Love you," he repeats.

Muhammed was brought to Seattle by Healing the Children, which connects children who need medical care unavailable in their native countries with U.S. physicians, hospitals and foster parents who volunteer their services.

The Smiths heard about Healing the Children a year ago and offered to host a child needing temporary foster care. When the organization contacted them about Muhammed, Randy Smith, 46, a Boeing systems analyst, says he was hesitant, but "we prayed about it" and now he calls Muhammed's presence a blessing.

For Julie Smith, 47, an interior decorator, "He's made me see what's beautiful differently. I don't really notice the scars on his face anymore. His personality shines through."

No one knows just how long Muhammed will be here or how many surgeries he will require. Little was known about his condition before Muhammed arrived in Seattle, and doctors are finding more damage than they initially thought.

While Muhammed's neurological functions remain normal, his face and sinuses are so damaged he has sleep apnea, which means he stops breathing momentarily in his sleep. His right eye was shattered, and doctors in Iraq removed it. The left eye has been traumatized and will, at a minimum, need a cornea transplant, but even then doctors say he is unlikely to have much vision.

For Iraqis, who live with the fear of kidnappings and bombings and often keep their children home from school for safety, it is difficult not to despair. The years of violence have also resulted in a loss of jobs and increased poverty.

"It's not wise to get married and give birth to a child during these times," says Muhammed's uncle Adil Joda, 27, by telephone from Iraq. "Look what happened."

For 15 years, Muhammed's extended family of grandparents, six uncles, their wives and all their children — 19 in all — have lived together in Al-Shaab, a neighborhood in northeast Baghdad, supporting themselves on the combined incomes as auto mechanics and from an uncle's car dealership.

"We are blessed to all be together," Joda said. The family are Shiites, the religious majority in Iraq, which was suppressed under Saddam Hussein's rule. They believe they were targeted on the afternoon of May 7, 2005, because they are Shiites.

Muhammed and five other family members, including his mother and sister, were driving home from visiting a relative when Sunni militants stopped his uncle's SUV northeast of Baghdad.

One by one the unarmed occupants of the vehicle were shot as Muhammed, then 2, and his 4-year-old sister watched. Then they shot Muhammed, the bullet carving a deep path across his face.

Muhammed's uncle — Joda's brother — died, and four others — including Muhammed and his mother — suffered life-threatening injuries. Only his sister escaped unscathed. A year later, his mother is still in the hospital; his father stays at her bedside.

After the shooting, the ambulances bearing Muhammed and his family were turned away at the nearest hospital because militants had threatened the staff.

Joda, the youngest of six boys in the Shiite family and a University of Baghdad graduate student majoring in literature, confronted the war that day as he never had before. He arrived at the hospital to the "worst day of my life."

His brother was dead, his sister-in-law — Muhammed's mother — was critically wounded. As for Muhammed, "His facial condition was indescribable. He had no recognizable features."

Joda took his nephew to neighboring Iran and for 10 weeks stayed with him, reassuring him, telling him his favorite story of the "Wolf and the Hen," reminding him of his mother's song, "The moon is rising. We must welcome the moon." Joda prayed and tried to answer Muhammed's question: Why can I no longer see?

"I did not want to tell him what happened but ... he is very clever," Joda recalled.

When doctors there said there was no hope of correcting Muhammed's blindness, Joda turned to the Internet and found Healing the Children and Swedish Medical Center.

"I heard the desperation and the pain in Adil's voice, my heart went out to him and his family," said Rebecca Snyders, executive director of Healing the Children's Western Washington and Oregon Chapter. "Then I saw the photos; I knew we had to do whatever we could to help this child."

May 24, a little more than one year after the attack, Muhammed's tiny body lay sedated on a gurney at Swedish Medical Center and images of the interior of his skull were projected onto monitors. Eye surgeon Gillette and plastic surgeon Jenifer Henderson felt the bones of his face, looked up his nose in dismay at the sinus damage, peered into his eye with a special microscope and tested the pressure in his eye.

Muhammed's eye has shrunk from the trauma — not a favorable sign, Gillette says. But at this point no one knows how many surgeries the little boy may require, or how much time it will take.

"Back home he's ruined if he can't see," said Raffi Ohanian, the Iraq-born hospital interpreter.

In Iraq, the blind are outcasts, never sent to school or trained for jobs. Often they beg on the streets. Like Joda, the interpreter wants more for Muhammed.

"From time to time Muhammed used to ask me, saying with innocence, 'When will I recover? When I grow up, will I go to school with my sister Zahra?' " Joda said.

Consultations are planned. Scans will be reviewed. And on both sides of the world — in different cultures, languages and religions — the many people who love Muhammed pray and wait.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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