Portland, ME: About 3,500 miles from her mother and home, Noora Afif Abdulhameed stepped off an AngelFlight plane Thursday afternoon at Portland International Jetport while clasping her father’s hand.
Across the tarmac, a small group was waiting to greet the girl and her dad. Among them were Claire Phillips and Meghan Cantlin, two 8-year-olds from Falmouth Brownie Troop No. 1955 who presented Noora with a basket filled with a stuffed bear, a pink Barbie baseball cap and lots of toys.
In another basket was a handknit robe, slippers and a handmade quilt that had been signed by all of the troop members.
Madison Hurley, 5, of Portland gave Noora a bouquet of balloons — one of which looked like a U.S. flag — tied with colorful ribbons. She paid for the balloons with her allowance money, and hopes to have Noora over for a play date before her surgery.
Wearing a reddish-orange flowered dress and sandals, Noora grinned as she took the balloons.
“Thank you, thank you,” her father, Afif Abdulhameed Otaiwi, said over and over again.
“That’s very kind of you,” Otaiwi told the group. “I want to thank all the people who helped my daughter to arrive here. I speak English a little. I can’t express my (feelings). Thank you very much.”
Noora and her father were brought to Portland by No More Victims, a nonprofit organization that brings war-injured Iraqi children to the United States for medical treatment. Their journey has been planned for five months.
Otaiwi and his daughter arrived at a No More Victims apartment in Amman, Jordan, the first week of June and began the process of obtaining visas for their trip. Cole Miller, founder of No More Victims, joined them on June 18.
After a 12-hour flight from Jordan, they rested in New York City for a day and a half before flying to Portland.
Miller, weary from traveling but excited about Noora’s arrival, eagerly videotaped the children’s cultural exchange at the jetport Thursday. “It’s a sweet moment, huh?” he said.
Over the next three to six months, Noora and her father will live in the Ronald McDonald House on Brackett Street while doctors repair the damage to Noora’s head at Maine Medical Center.
Noora was injured Oct. 23, 2006, in Heet, Iraq, when a U.S. sniper fired from a rooftop toward the family’s car. The bullet destroyed tissue on the left side of Noora’s head and her forehead, ruptured her cerebral membrane, and shattered part of her skull. She was unconscious “for a good long while,” Miller said.
Iraqi doctors were able to save the child’s life, but without the needed medical supplies and equipment, could not completely repair the damage to her head.
Noora’s father, a 42-year-old history teacher at the high school in Heet, took her to several hospitals in different Iraq cities. She underwent seven surgeries to remove shattered bone from her skull and to transfer skin from her thighs to her head.
But after a while, Iraqi doctors told Otaiwi there was nothing more they could do.
“The treatment in Iraq for injured people is just for an emergency,” Otaiwi said, now using a translator. “It’s just an emergency to keep the people alive. I was hopeless when they said there was no more surgery for her.”
Hope returned, he said, when he heard about No More Victims.
“There’s a lot of kids like my daughter in Iraq,” Otaiwi said. “They did not have the chance to have the surgery. But I am very happy to bring my daughter here, and I have the hope that they will help her.”
As he spoke, Otaiwi brushed aside his daughter’s dark hair, revealing more of her scarred scalp and a concave section of skin where the skull bone is missing.
Since her injury, Miller said, Noora
has slept between Otaiwi and his wife because they are afraid she will fall out of bed and suffer brain damage.
Dr. James Wilson, a Portland pediatric neurosurgeon, has volunteered his services for Noora’s treatment, which will include a prosthetic replacement for her missing skull bone and plastic surgery. Maine Medical Center and the Ronald McDonald House are also donating their services.
It typically costs $17,000 to $35,000 for No More Victims to bring a child to America for treatment, Miller said.
In Noora’s case, Arundel residents Susi Eggenberger and Doug Rogers spearheaded the fund-raising effort, which has raised $14,000 so far. The money will be used for transportation to and from Iraq, and to care for the rest of the family while Noora and her father are away.
It also provides a little nest egg for when the injured children and their parents arrive back home, Eggenberger said, “because a lot of times what happens is, the dads lose their jobs when they come over here to the States.”
Several southern Maine communities have pitched in to help Noora via fund-raising events. Woodford’s Congregational Church held “An Evening for Noora,” featuring Middle Eastern food, music and dancing. The New School and the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Kennebunk put on a benefit spaghetti dinner. And a group of high school students from Wiscasset is selling reusable grocery bags.
Miller said he believes that such community-based efforts could help combat terrorism by showing the world that ordinary Americans care about what’s going on in other countries. “People are going to respond to our behavior,” he said.
Otaiwi said he hopes to go back home and tell everyone about the people in Portland who helped his daughter.
“Maybe (you) think all Iraqi people hate Americans, but that’s not true,” he said, tears filling his eyes. “United States people is very kind and very generous, but (President George W.) Bush is hard-hearted.”
Asked what she thinks about Americans, Noora said through a translator: “They are good people.”