Putting on a brave face
For five months, Abdul-Hakeem Khalaf and his father have been eager to return home to Iraq and their large family.
Both cried tears of sadness Tuesday when the day finally arrived, repeatedly hugging their new extended family of Americans, Egyptians, Libyans and Lebanese – all Pittsburghers – who befriended and supported them while Abdul-Hakeem, 7, underwent a series of reconstructive surgeries.
“I’m happy to see my family, and on the other side, I’m sad,” said Ismaeel Khalaf Hussein, 46.
Abdul-Hakeem lost an eye and his face was badly disfigured when coalition forces shelled his Fallujah home on April 9, 2004.
“He didn’t want to go to school. He didn’t want to eat or drink in front of anybody. The kids were always picking on him. We knew we had to do something,” Hussein said.
No More Victims, a Los Angeles nonprofit that brings children injured in the war to the United States for treatment, brought Abdul-Hakeem and his father to Pittsburgh on Feb. 19. They began their journey home yesterday through New York to Jordan. From there, it will be a dangerous 10- to 12-hour trek by taxi or bus to Fallujah.
“He was beautiful when he came over, but he’s so beautiful now. I wish I was there with his family when they see him for the first time,” said Mariam Gumina, who opened her Banksville home to Abdul-Hakeem and his father when they arrived.
The physical changes in Abdul-Hakeem since he arrived in Pittsburgh five months ago are skin-deep, but the results are profound.
He’s happier. More confident. Less concerned about teasing.
Dr. Fred Deleyiannis, a plastic surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and Dr. Tonya Stefko, an ophthalmologist at UPMC Eye & Ear Institute, performed several surgeries to repair the facial damage. Pittsburgh ocularist Walter “Bud” Tillman III made a prosthetic brown eye to match Abdul-Hakeem’s natural one.
A Massachusetts philanthropist gave $50,000 toward hospital costs, and Children’s Hospital donated the rest. Tillman and the surgeons volunteered their services.
With widespread media attention, the injured boy quickly became a local celebrity.
Abdul-Hakeem, whose full name is Abdul-Hakeem Ismaeel Khalaf Hussein, said he enjoyed the limelight and might like to be a photographer someday. At the zoo, on the playground, the Duquesne Incline, a Banksville mosque and places around town, strangers, including children, politely greeted the boy and his father, sometimes offering money, gifts or kind words his classmates at home did not.
Hussein, who initially shied away from being photographed, said he was grateful the media attention generated such good will toward his son, making their long stay away from home easier. He also hopes it will lead to treatment for more children who have been injured in the war, he said.
In Iraq, he prefers anonymity, he said. It’s safer.
Asked what he liked best about his stay in Pittsburgh, Abdul-Hakeem said, “Kennywood and the zoo.”
His father, speaking in Arabic, prompted him for a bit more.
“And the people,” the boy said.
Abdul-Hakeem is chattier — even in English — except when being interviewed, when he answers mostly with a single word. His father, who studied English while in elementary and middle schools, said he envies how much of the language his son has learned from playmates.
Both relied on UPMC translator Marie Teslovich for interviews and doctors’ appointments, but Abdul-Hakeem has impressed Americans with his English and amused them with his slang, such as pronouncing a toy or an idea as “sweet.”
During their stay, Abdul-Hakeem and his father had several homes, first with American Gumina and her two sons, then at the Ronald McDonald House in Oakland. Most recently, they split their time with families of men Hussein met at a Banksville mosque, Egyptian-born Moniem El-Ganayni, of Highland Park, and Libyan-born Mabruk Eshnuk, of Scott.
Soon, Abdul-Hakeem was copying the boys’ hairstyles.
“At the beginning, he didn’t want to learn (English),” Teslovich said. “It was like, ‘I’m going back to Iraq, I don’t need that.’ ” She said she realized that “He was worried that if he did anything (American) here, he wouldn’t go back to Iraq.”
Abdul-Hakeem misses his mother, who stayed in Iraq with her other nine children, ages 18 months to 21 years. They spoke regularly – more frequently on the nights before surgery, sometimes crying and looking for her reassurances.
“Oh, she said she can’t wait to hug him and throw him up in the air,” Hussein said of his wife.
Eight months pregnant with her 11th child, his mother was injured in the attack in the shoulder and stomach. She lost the daughter she was carrying. A month ago, she had to undergo emergency surgery to repair the damage after the pain became too intense. Hussein was distraught about not being able to be by his wife’s side.
The Husseins’ only daughter, Fatima, 14, and oldest son, Haquie, 21, were cut by shrapnel.
Hussein, who previously side-stepped political questions about the war, said U.S. forces should leave Iraq.
“They came for (former President) Saddam Hussein, because he was in power, and for the weapons of mass destruction. Neither one of them exists anymore, so why are they still in Iraq?” he said.
Asking about the rebuilding efforts, he said, “They build one place and ruin another place. … It would be better to let Iraqis deal with Iraq.”
He draws a distinction between the U.S. government and military and the American people, whom he likes and believes want peace.
“I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to us” in Pittsburgh, he said.