The two girls had never met before last weekend, but they already had a special connection.One is a 12-year-old Iraqi who lost her legs during an American airstrike. The other is a 15-year-old Carmel High School student.
Three years ago, Salee Allawi was playing outside her home in Fallujah, Iraq, when a missile hit. The explosion killed her brother and injured her legs so seriously that they were amputated below the knees.
On Sept. 19, Salee traveled with her father, Hussein Feras, from Los Angeles — where she is spending the month to break in her new prosthetic legs — to the Peninsula to meet Lexi Mooneyham, a Carmel Valley girl who raised $600 to help pay for Salee's travels to the United States.
"Meeting her was like a dream come true," Lexi said. "It was reassuring to know that all those efforts I was doing were going to a great cause, that I helped someone and to see the effects of that."
The money Lexi raised was a small portion of the $15,000 to $20,000 it costs to bring an Iraqi child to the United States for medical treatment. But to the directors of No More Victims, the Los Angeles-based organization for which Lexi raises money to help Iraqi children, her contribution extends beyond the amount she raised.
"We're really grateful to Lexi for helping with Salee's experience," said Cole Miller, the founder of No More Victims. "She was so proactive. She put these (fundraising) ideas together herself, she implemented them and provided encouragement."
No More Victims, which focuses on helping children injured in war, has brought 10 Iraqi children to the United States to be fitted with prosthetics to replace limbs they lost as a result of American military action.
Miller said that because of Lexi's efforts, he felt she should meet the Iraqi girl she helped — and that Salee should meet the person who helped her. So he and his wife, Anne Miller, who helps run the organization, drove Salee and her father up the coast.
Salee and Lexi only had about 24 hours with each other, but they seemed to make the most of their time. They bonded despite a language barrier — Salee speaks Arabic, but very little English.
Lexi and her friend, Lindsay, took Salee to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where Salee saw an underwater world very different from the war-torn desert she calls home.
"Life is so beautiful here," Salee said through a translator. "When I heard the sound of the ocean, it reminded me of the sound of my friends laughing when we played."
Salee said she misses her friends in Baghdad, where she grew up before her family fled the violence in Iraq's capital and moved to the Fallujah region. She joked that she wished to make young friends in California because she has been spending all her time with "old people."
She made a friend last weekend, in a meeting that was six months in the making.
In March, Lexi was perusing the Internet, searching for "an organization to help with something in the big picture," she said.
"After reading some of the kids' stories, I was totally hooked," she said.
She contacted No More Victims and was told about a girl who needed new prosthetic legs because she had outgrown the ones she received as a 10-year-old. Lexi recruited three of her friends to help sell friendship bracelets for $2 each at school and at Sunshine Sports in Monterey.
Lexi "has been so dedicated to her work," Anne Miller said. "She amazes me with her maturity, her dedication and her sense of responsibility."
Speaking through a translator, Feras told the story of the day Salee lost both legs, his other daughter lost one leg and his 12-year-old son was killed.
Feras said he was drinking tea and talking about the war with friends when they heard explosions from airstrikes in the distance. He called to his children to come in the house because he was worried.
His children ignored their father's plea, saying to him, "We are used to hearing these explosions."
Moments later, Feras' family was changed forever.
"Suddenly, there is a big explosion (near) where we are sitting," he said.
Feras stumbled out of the smoke-filled room, covered in blood, to look for his children.
He saw Salee on the ground after she had been thrown about 15 feet by the explosion. Then he spotted his younger daughter, Rusul, who was 4 years old at the time. Her right foot and ankle had been mangled. They were later amputated.
Having spotted his two daughters, Feras turned his attention to finding his son, Akram. All he found was a piece of Akram's shirt.
With no ambulance service available, Feras and some relatives drove Salee to the hospital. Salee had lost a lot of blood, and the hospital was short of her blood type, AB. Feras rushed out to the street, he said, waving down cars to ask the drivers if they were AB and, if so, if they would donate their blood for his daughter.
A message was sent to a local mosque about Salee's situation, and from there word spread through the neighborhood. Within a few hours, 23 people had shown up, each ready to donate a pint of AB blood.
"We only needed 12" pints, Feras said.
Feras is grateful for the people who drove to the hospital late at night in a city rocked by violence to give blood to a little girl they did not even know. He expressed a similar feeling of gratitude for the people of No More Victims, an organization Feras found out about through word of mouth.
"I couldn't believe this organization came to help," Feras said. "I couldn't believe they came all this way to help my daughter."
It is not lost on Feras that the people helping his daughter come from the same country as the people who hurt her.
"We blame the American government for what they did, but we receive help from the people," Feras said. "Americans are really friendly, they are really helpful ... We are the same people. It doesn't matter if we are Americans or Iraqis."
Lexi recognizes that it does matter, at least in one regard. Living on the Central Coast, she likely will never worry about facing the violence that devastated Salee and her family.
Salee "was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Lexi said. "Living here in America, and especially in Carmel Valley, I will never have to worry about a bomb getting dropped on my house."
Lexi said she will continue to raise money for No More Victims, expanding her efforts to help other Iraqi children who have been injured and to raise awareness of the war's impacts.
"I feel that as an American, it is the right thing to do," she said.