Orlando holds hope for young war victim

Orlando Sentinel - November 2005
Tiny shrapnel bits pepper the left side of 2-year-old Alaa’ Abd’s face, looking at first glance like black freckles. Metal slivers in her left eye have left her with little vision, and each day she sees less.In hopes of restoring her sight, Alaa’ and her father arrived Saturday in Orlando, where she will be seen this week by an eye specialist.

Alaa’ became one of the faces of the Iraq war in May when, her family says, a U.S. tank shell burst inside their home, blinding the child and rending her flesh from head to toe. The explosion killed two of her brothers and three cousins.

The children, all younger than 10, were having a tea party.

Now Alaa’ (pronounced Ah-LAH) has a chance of regaining her sight thanks to the Orlando eye surgeon, a local college student who wouldn’t take no for an answer and the group NoMoreVictims.org that tries to get medical help for the war’s youngest victims.

“By God’s will, my daughter will see,” Khalid Hamdan Abd, a 27- year-old carpenter, said through interpreter Najla Abu-Shaaban.

Father and daughter are staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Orlando, where they were settling in Saturday after a harrowing trip from their home near the war-torn city of Qaim, not far from the Syrian border. The area is a hot spot for insurgents and foreign fighters in western Iraq’s Al Anbar province. The U.S. military recently moved thousands of troops and firepower into the area in a bid to root out the insurgents.

“We can only hope that there will be peace,” Abd said. “We thank all the organizations and Americans who are helping [with his daughter]. But at the same time, we want people to know the truth.”

Abd was out looking for work so that he could buy food for his family on the day of the attack.

He found his daughter buried beneath the rubble, near the bodies of his sons.

Her wounds were so severe that at first doctors told the distraught father there was nothing they could do. They explained that they did not want to waste precious bandages on someone certain to die.

But Alaa’ defied the odds and lived.

An Iraqi doctor finally agreed to perform basic surgery on the wounds, which included shrapnel shards embedded from top to toe.

Help came when NoMoreVictims.org, started by Cole Miller, a Los Angeles freelance writer and documentary photographer, and Vietnam veteran Alan Pogue asked Iraqi doctors for the names of children they could help. As a result, the story of Alaa’ appeared on their Web site, where it was seen by Barry University School of Law student Ashley Severance, 22, of Orlando.

“I had to help,” she said Saturday. “If that happened here, I would only hope that someone would help my child.”

Miller told her to find a doctor, a hospital and a place for the family to stay. He explained that the family would also need special visas to leave Iraq and visit the United States and money to travel and live on.

“I’ve lost count at how many times people told me no,” Severance said. “I made phone call after phone call after phone call.”

Severance finally reached Dr. Saad Shaikh with Central Florida Retina, who agreed to do the surgery at no charge. He could not be reached for comment Saturday, but Severance said Shaikh got an Orlando hospital to provide a bed and an operating room for free.

Severance did not identify the hospital at the request of its officials.

The next hurdle was to raise the money to get Alaa’ and her father out of Iraq. Her mother, who is pregnant, was unable to get a visa and had to stay behind.

After a journey across the desert to neighboring Jordan, the Abd family reached the American Embassy, which arranged further help and signed off on three-month visas allowing them to enter the United States.

Alaa’ misses her mother and cries often. But Abd said they must do everything they can to save her sight, however little.

They expect to meet with the surgeon Wednesday and will probably be here until early next year, giving Alaa’ time to recover from the procedure.

Abd said that no one has taken responsibility for the deaths and injuries. He said he is convinced it was the Americans because “they were the only ones there [with that firepower].”

A Department of Defense news release about the events of that day describes a firefight with a truckload of terror suspects in Qaim and noted that a female child was wounded. No other details were provided.

Abd said that although he thinks Americans killed and wounded his children, he is happy to be in the United States, where he can get help for his daughter.

The road ahead is uncertain, and Abd worries about what will happen to his family in Iraq while he is away.

“Hopefully, we will have a home,” he said. “We can’t tell at all what the future will be.”

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