A seven-year-old girl is finally enjoying a long-awaited reunion with her mother and siblings, after spending nearly a year in Maine. Noora Abdulhameed and her father traveled to Portland for medical treatment to repair injuries she suffered during the war.
For the past year, NECN reporter Marnie MacLean and videographer Dave Brosemer have followed Noora’s progress. They bring you Noora’s journey.
July 2008, an Iraqi father and his injured daughter arrive in Maine. For Afef Otaiwi it is a leap of faith — bringing his daughter to the same country now fighting a war in his homeland.
His kind smile hides his fear.
We first meet Noora and Afef shortly after their arrival in Maine. Afef tells us about the day Noora was shot by a U.S. sniper as the family was driving home.
The bullet shattered Noora’s skull—she spent 10 days in a coma. Noora endured seven surgeries in Iraq–but doctors couldn’t replace the missing bone–leaving her brain vulnerable to permanent damage.
Her father says she keeps asking a question he cannot answer.
“She ask me all the time, why do American sniper shoot me? What I do?”
It has never been determined why soldiers targeted the vehicle. But concern for Noora’s health outweighs the family’s frustration — The group No More Victims helped bring Noora here for free medical care.
Though Noora doesn’t speak English, we find a way to communicate — through pictures.
Despite her ordeal, Noora is bright, happy and eager to learn as much as she can in her new, temporary home.
Helping her make that transition is Susi Eggenberger and her husband Doug Rogers—the Maine couple has offered to help Noora and Afef while they are here.
It’s a commitment they expect will last a few months. The Ronald McDonald house invited Noora and Afef to stay here, so they can be close to the hospital.
Soon, the doctor visits begin.
Two Maine surgeons have signed on for Noora’s care–plastic surgeon John Attwood sees a complicated case.
The decision is made to give Noora a prostethic skull…but she needs new, healthy skin to cover it. Dr. Attwood inserts balloons under Noora’s scalp and carefully injects them with saline every few days.
It is a slow process…..many weeks go by, but finally Dr. Attwood feels he has enough new skin to cover the prosthetic skull…her surgery is scheduled at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Her nervous father walks the halls of the hospital. Susi Eggenberger is also nervous…evidence of the bond she already shares with the girl she has agreed to watch over.
The surgery goes well….but Dr. Attwood has a nagging feeling… perhaps he didn’t have enough new skin.
He was right….a section of skin never healed….and instead of going back to Iraq after several months….Noora would require more surgery and more time away from home.
Noora takes the bad news better than her father. When she’s not dealing with doctors, Noora is getting out and exploring Portland.
She meets new friends almost daily during her walks to a nearby playground. Susi is a constant companion…and Noora is happy to have all the attention.
She sings in Arabic…but her english is improving daily…..she can now understand what people say to her, I find out she’s a fellow Tom and Jerry fan.
While Noora has settled into her new life with ease…for her father–the medical setbacks mean more time away from his wife and other children.
And because he has been gone so long…Afef has lost his job as a history teacher—
The laptop is his lifeline…..using Skype, Afef can communicate with his wife Afra and three other children.
For Noora’s mother…it is a way to see her daughter is being well cared for— she even gets to approve Noora’s new holiday dress.
Weeks turn into months….and soon Noora is experiencing a real Maine winter…..tackling the snow with her usual good humor.
Inside, Afef shows us a photo of his newborn baby. He has missed his daughter’s birth…..another reminder of all that war has taken away from him.
Noora’s doctors know how much Afef wants to return home—and they feel that pressure to heal Noora–a second attempt to grow new skin for Noora’s head is more successful….and after enduring five surgeries here in Maine—Noora is finally cleared to return to Iraq.
At her going away party Noora gets to have one final playdate with her american friends…..the Hannah Montana t-shirt and Cheez Doodles show how much she has embraced the culture…..for better or worse.
But her impact on people here is more profound. Noora isn’t a number, or a statistic…she is the face of collateral damage.
An innocent victim who has fought hard to survive. She has endured so much…..yet retained a sense of joy. In her final days in Maine she even gets to strut her stuff on the runway at a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald house.
Noora says she will miss Maine…most of all the ocean… and knowing she is safe from harm.
Afef is hopeful conditions will improve in Iraq and he will be able to raise all of his children without the fear of losing them.
As Afef and Susi look through the scrapbook of their year in Maine….both find the moment bittersweet….
These two families, separated by culture, language and religion have found trust and true friendship–and they are deeply grateful to have been given that chance.
At the Portland Jetport there are final hugs.
Cheez doodles in hand, Noora begins the long trip back home …finally healed…and happy.
Noora will still require more surgeries in the future to try and restore some of the hair she has lost.