When the air raid began, Nidhal Aswad gripped her child in her arms and ran, but she couldn’t escape the nightmare that her boy’s world would become. A U.S. missile struck a nearby building, knocking the two to the street in Fallujah, western Iraq. When Aswad regained consciousness, she heard her 2-year-old, Mustafa Ahmed Abed, screaming. Shrapnel had severed his bowel, left leg and most of his hip.
That terrible day in November 2004, Aswad couldn’t have imagined that nearly four years later, strangers from the same country that fired that missile would donate money and medical expertise to help her child heal. She couldn’t have dreamed, in other words, of the scene that unfolded Tuesday at Portland International Airport, after her husband and son touched down.
“Imagine if this was your child and a community reached forward to do this,” Maxine Fookson said Tuesday. “Your heart would swell.” Fookson and her husband, Ned Rosch, are ringleaders in the effort to bring Mustafa, now 5, to Portland. Medical teams at Shriners and Doernbecher children’s hospitals expect to fit the boy with a prosthetic leg and explore whether they can improve his abdominal wounds. He will be the fourth child from Iraq or Afghanistan to be treated at Portland Shriners Hospital for Children since the war began. Fookson and Rosch had their radio tuned to 90.7 FM, KBOO, one day last October when they heard an interview with Cole Miller, a California screenwriter who in 2002 co-founded No More Victims. The nonprofit, nonsectarian, humanitarian group advocates for peace and brings war-injured Iraqi children to the United States for medical care they can’t get in their own struggling country. The interview hit the Southeast Portland couple right where their passions live: Fookson, 55, is a pediatric nurse practitioner with the Multnomah County Health Department. Rosch, 58, is director of the Northwest Osteopathic Medical Foundation. Both are active in Portland’s peace movement. Fookson said she remembers thinking: “It was our tax dollars that bought the bombs. Why isn’t it our volunteer dollars that do the healing?” They called Miller at No More Victims and started a Portland chapter, one of more than 20 nationwide. “Portland is a city with a very large heart and wonderful pediatric resources,” Fookson and Rosch wrote in a November appeal to colleagues, friends and acquaintances. “We’d like to put these into action by banding together. … We are reaching out for your help.” Responses poured in. Churches passed collection plates for No More Victims. Neighbors raised money at potlucks and poetry readings. The metro area’s Muslim community offered help. Franklin High School students spent the summer stitching a welcome quilt for Mustafa. The group raised about $20,000 and will continue fundraising, Fookson said. While No More Victims arranges donated medical care, the group estimates it costs $17,000 to $25,000 to bring an Iraqi child and one of their parents, usually the father, to the United States. Because fathers typically are the family wage earner, the nonprofit also provides Iraqi families a stipend while the father is away. In addition to his mother, Mustafa has a younger brother and sister at home. When he’s not hospitalized, Mustafa and his father will live at Ronald McDonald House.
Until they examine him this week and next, doctors won’t know what surgeries Mustafa needs or how long he might have to stay in Portland. It could be four to six months, Fookson said. Doctors know the boy uses a colostomy bag but don’t know the extent of his internal injuries; medical records from the war zone are more scant than the medical care available there. Because he lost his leg so high on his hip, fitting him with a prosthetic will be challenging. Kay Weber, a spokeswoman, said difficult cases such as Mustafa’s are Shriners’ specialty; the nonprofit hospital, which provides free care to needy children, has the region’s largest pediatric orthopedic medical staff. About 100 Oregonians bearing balloons, flowers and warm smiles turned out at PDX on Tuesday to greet Mustafa and his father, Ahmed Mohammed. Among the welcoming party, of course, was Fookson, who sounded nearly breathless with anticipation, her hopes high for the child she called “a little ambassador of peace.”