Before he came to Pittsburgh two years ago, Abdul-Hakeem Khalaf didn't like going to school. Now the Iraqi boy is first in his class.
Abdul-Hakeem, 10, was at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh on Thursday for more surgery to repair the scarred left side of his face, disfigured when coalition forces shelled his Fallujah home on April 9, 2004.
In 2006, No More Victims, a Los Angeles nonprofit, brought the boy and his father, Ismaeel Khalaf Hussein, to Pittsburgh for surgery to give him a prosthetic eye and to repair his mouth. Children's Hospital doctors donated services and the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation, a Massachusetts nonprofit, helped cover medical costs. They returned to Iraq five months later.
"When we went back (to Iraq), he was definitely much happier, he felt better about how he looked," said Hussein.
Abdul-Hakeem said his favorite subject is reading; he loves the lions at the Pittsburgh Zoo, SpongeBob SquarePants and Pittsburgh's snow. As with his last visit to Pittsburgh, he let his shiny brown hair grow long.
"When I go back to Iraq, then I'll get a haircut," he said, grinning.
The boy and his father returned to Pittsburgh in December. A balloon was inserted beneath the skin on his cheek and slowly inflated over the past several months to prompt good skin to grow. The pair stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Shadyside.
Yesterday, Dr. Fred Deleyiannis, a plastic surgeon at Children's, removed the balloon and about 90 percent of a skin graft that encircled the left side of Abdul-Hakeem's mouth. He then pulled the new skin over the void in a two-hour operation.
"It went great," Deleyiannis said. "We were able to remove about 90 to 95 percent of the skin graft."
Abdul-Hakeem will heal for a few weeks and, if there are no complications, he'll return to Iraq within a month. No more surgeries are planned.
In the past year, life in Fallujah has gotten easier, Hussein said. There is less violence, so he sees fewer American soldiers.
But they still have intermittent water, and electricity is only available for two hours a day. Though he is retired, Hussein works odd jobs, such as driving a taxi, to make extra money to fuel a generator. He is trying to find a way to get his wife, who was injured, to another country for surgery.
Earlier this week, the family received happy news: Hussein's daughter-in-law is pregnant, and he would soon be a grandfather for the first time. That will make Abdul-Hakeem an uncle.
The boy, who just turned 10 on March 2, said he is still adjusting to being a pre-teen.
"I think I'm too young to be an uncle," he said.