PORTLAND, MAINE — Afif Abdulhameed Otaiwi sat down to lunch Friday at the StarEast Cafe on Forest Avenue with a big smile on his face, his eyes beaming.
“I am very happy now,” he said as he and daughter Noora dug into a plate of chicken and lamb kabobs served with basmati rice and vegetables.
Otaiwi had just received a phone call from his family in Iraq, the first communication they’ve had since he and Noora landed in Portland on Thursday afternoon.
With the help of a nonprofit group called No More Victims, Otaiwi brought 6-year-old Noora to Portland so she can receive treatment at Maine Medical Center. Noora was shot by a U.S. sniper on Oct. 23, 2006, as she was riding in the family car, and lost part of her skull.
The little girl had seven surgeries in Iraq, but doctors there told Otaiwi there was nothing else they could do for her.
Dr. James Wilson, a Portland neurosurgeon, has volunteered to repair Noora’s head injuries. Noora and her father are expected to be in Portland for the next three to six months.
“It’s a very great tragedy,” said Saad Albeshir, owner of the StarEast, who left his hometown of Basra 18 years ago to come to the United States and is serving as a translator for Otaiwi while he’s in Portland. “I’m a father, and I know how it feels.”
CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
Otaiwi, 42, is a history teacher in Heet, about 125 miles west of Baghdad and 125 miles from the Syrian border. Home to about 20,000 people, Heet is a small, narrow city situated between the Euphrates River and a “general way,” or major road.
Noora, who will turn 7 in September, is “just like a normal girl” who likes Barbie dolls and playing active games, her father said. She has three siblings: a brother, Mustafa, 11; and two sisters, Laura, 10, and Haba, 7. Noora is the youngest, but not for long. Her mother, Afrah, is expecting the family’s fifth child.
Even before Noora’s injury, life was difficult in Heet. Food is scarce in the city.
“There’s not a lot of jobs in town,” Otaiwi said. “Everything is very expensive, except for the humans. Now they have no value.”
Otaiwi said because of the American military presence, there is “no limit” to the fear the people in his hometown feel on a daily basis. Sometimes, he said, an Iraqi will fire toward U.S. soldiers, then blend into the crowd to try to disappear. In response, American soldiers will fire back to try to shoot the person responsible, but will sometimes hit innocent civilians instead, he said.
“I’m not making this up,” Otaiwi said. “I’m responsible for every word I say.”
Otaiwi’s father was killed this way about six months ago, and he said he knows of at least 20 other families who have had members injured in similar incidents.
“When I was with my daughter in the hospital, I saw a lot of kids like my daughter,” Otaiwi said, “some worse than my daughter, and some of them didn’t make it.”
On the day Noora was shot, Otaiwi and his family were returning from a family celebration, and were one minute from arriving home. It was about 4 p.m. and still clearly daylight.
The first shot hit him, Otaiwi said as he pointed to a bullet scar on his left jaw line, just beneath his ear. At the moment of the shooting, he had turned his head to say something to his wife. Otherwise, he would be dead.
The second bullet hit Noora.
Otaiwi said Noora remembers what happened, and also remembers that she “fell asleep.” She was in a coma for 10 days.
The family rushed her to the local hospital, which Otaiwi said is “very poor” and does not have enough medical supplies and equipment. Otaiwi tried to stay by his daughter’s side, but eventually the doctors told him to leave or else he would be arrested.
Over the next six months, the family took Noora to four hospitals in four Iraq cities. She’s had seven surgeries, and has had skin transferred from her thigh to her head. Her scalp is scarred, and she has no hair over a large portion of her head. Some children in Heet avoid her now, while others tease her, calling her “bald head.”
Noora sometimes gets infections, her father said. Her parents keep her with them 24-7, even while sleeping, for fear she’ll injure herself further before she gets the prosthetic skull bone she needs in Portland.
When Noora heard No More Victims would be bringing her to the United States to fix her injuries, she used an Iraqi expression, saying she was “flying from happiness.” She told all her friends and neighbors she would be feeling better soon.
SHARING THE TRAGEDY
Since arriving Thursday, Otaiwi and his daughter have been settling in well, he said. She likes her room at the Ronald McDonald House on Brackett Street. At the StarEast Cafe, they had the first “real Iraqi food” they’d had in weeks.
Late Friday afternoon, they planned to walk around Portland and visit a local mosque.
“Everybody is very kind to me,” Otaiwi said. “I like them a lot, the way they treat me.”
On Friday, Noora was smiling nonstop and already picking up some English. Holding a makeshift microphone, she pretended to be one of the scores of TV reporters who have surrounded her during the past 24 hours, approaching each of her hosts and asking them, “How are you?”
Noora and Otaiwi have a long way to go on their American journey, but Otaiwi is determined to make the time to tell his story. He feels he must.
Here’s how he expressed it to Albeshir: “He’s coming from Iraq with a basketful of tragedy, and he wants everybody to hear about it.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: