On April 9, 2004 at 11:00 pm, during the First Siege of Fallujah, Abdul Hakeem and his family were asleep at home when mortar rounds fired by US forces rained down on their home. His mother suffered abdominal and chest injuries and has undergone five major operations. His older brother and sister were injured, and his unborn sister killed.
US forces did not permit ambulances to transport civilian casualties to the hospital. In fact, they fired on ambulances, one of many violations of international law committed by US forces in the April assault. A neighbor volunteered to take the family to the hospital, where doctors assessed Hakeem’s chances of survival at five percent. They laid his limp body aside and treated other civilian casualties whose chances of survival appeared higher.
NMV learned about Abdul Hakeem in March of 2005. We secured his medical reports and sent them to Dan Kovalik, an attorney with the United Steelworkers. He then contacted local doctors, including oculoplastic surgeon Dr. Toni Stefko, who immediately volunteered to help. Chad Hetman, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, spent six weeks in Amman guiding Hakeem and his father through the difficult and time-consuming visa process. He accompanied them to Pittsburgh, where they arrived in February 2006. Here’s a video about Abdul Hakeem’s first visit to Pittsburgh:
Dan Kovalik and Maria Roberts spearheaded local arrangements in Pittsburgh. Hakeem received a prosthetic eye, which dramatically improved his appearance. His TMJ was restored on the left side, and skin grafting removed 50% of the scar tissue. Local Pittsburgh media covered every aspect of his care.
The community rallied around Abdul Hakeem and his father. Strong bonds of solidarity developed between members of diverse communities. Muslims, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, people of diverse educational and social backgrounds — all worked together to make Abdul Hakeem’s visit and medical treatment a success. This was a genuine expression of community that transcended nationalist, religious or ideological boundaries.
Of course, medical science could not restore Abdul Hakeem to his original state, or bring his dead sister back to life. And the boy returns to a highly uncertain future in a country devastated by invasion and foreign occupation. During Hakeem’s treatment in the US, unknown numbers of children were maimed or killed in US attacks, and many others died from hunger*, waterborne diseases, or the lack of basic medical services.
*In November 2004, during the second Siege of Fallujah, the Washington Post reported that acute malnutrition among Iraqi children had nearly doubled since the U.S. invasion began. By May 2006, the rate acute or chronic malnutrition had soared to one of every four Iraqi children. (United Nations Children’s Fund)
Abdul Hakeem returned to Pittsburgh for a second round of skin grafting that removed 80% of his remaining scar. His appearance has been virtually restored. Before his treatment, he refused to go to school because — in his words — “I look like a horrible monster.”
After bombing his home and destroying one side of his face, the US government and military refused to provide any medical assistance to help the boy. That kind of conduct endangers American civilians because the stain rubs off on all of us.
The dedicated actions taken by Dan Kovalik and his community in Pittsburgh sent another message to the people of Fallujah and the greater Middle East: a message of compassion and responsibility.
These projects work. Today Abdul Hakeem is back in school and the top student in his class. A child who otherwise would have languished in misery has been helped. In the process, millions of people in the United States were made aware of his story.