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ODYSSEY OF HEALING

Helping one girl face the future with hope

Disfigured by war, a young Iraqi finds medical aid and caring strangers in L.A.

October 15, 2006|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

IT WAS shrapnel that brought her to Los Angeles. Hot and sharp, it pierced her legs, her stomach and her right hand. It mangled her face around her deep brown eyes, and it tore off her nose.

"I'm hurt," Marwa cried. "Mommy, I'm hurt in my face. I'm hurt, Mommy. My face."

A missile? Mortar? Whose? It was impossible to know. The Americans were invading Baghdad, and Marwa Naim blamed them. She would never forget the explosion. It had blown up her house, thrown her into the air and flung her on top of her mother. Marwa saw a hole the shrapnel carved into her mother's stomach.

Her mother lay still. Marwa saw blood. "Mommy, Mommy, get up.... "

Then Marwa's vision began to fade. She would recall thinking that she herself was dying. Or that maybe she was already dead. Before she lost consciousness, she heard her aunt screaming for her father.

"Mohammed!" her aunt cried. "Your wife is dead! Your wife is dead!"

Marwa was 9 years old.

She had been pretty, her skin soft and toffee-colored, her eyes, mouth and nose set together in perfect proportion, just like her mother's. It gave her the confidence to make herself known, even in a rough suburb like hers on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, a poor and religiously conservative neighborhood where girls settled into defined roles and rarely ventured out alone.

But now her face! Iraqi doctors removed the shrapnel from her stomach and hand and repaired the scars on her lip and around her eyes. But they could not replace her right thumb. And her nose? There was next to nothing. No nostrils, no tip. Just two holes and a small gutter covered by a zigzagging scar.

She saw her face in a mirror and cried. She was too embarrassed to go out. Everyone stared and gossiped. She stopped going to school. Other children called her "Mrs. No Nose." She hated those taunts, hated them more than anything. "Mrs. No Nose. Mrs. No Nose." She couldn't take it.

Her father got a small aid grant and opened a tiny store, where he sold chips and Pepsis to his battle-weary neighbors. That was how aid groups found out about Marwa. They offered to arrange for her to fly to Los Angeles. The Palestine Children's Relief Fund offered to buy her a ticket and find somewhere for her to stay.

The UCLA Medical Center and its chief of plastic surgery, Dr. Tim Miller, offered to restore her face -- for free.

But if Americans had hurt her, could they be trusted to heal her?

She would have to go to the United States for months alone. How would she manage? She knew no English, and her perceptions came from bootlegged Jackie Chan movies and whispers on the street: America was an ugly, scary place, especially for Muslims.

When she returned, would she come back just to be killed in another explosion?

Go, her father said. If she didn't look normal, she would never finish school, and she might never marry. He blamed the Americans too. He would recall seeing their aircraft firing missiles just before the concussion. But her face meant so much.

"You're going to look better," he said. "Your nose will get better. Its beautiful shape will be back."

Fearful arrival

MARWA Naim arrived at Los Angeles International Airport one foggy evening in January. By then, she was 11 but still too young to be alone. She carried all of her belongings in a small bag. She wore a pair of thin brown sandals, cream-colored pants and an old light-blue hijab, the head covering common among Muslim women. It was frayed and had small holes at its edges.

"You must be Marwa," a man said in Arabic. He hugged her and gave her a clutch of red and pink flowers. "Assalamu alaikum, habibi," he said. "May peace be upon you, little girl." He was holding a small photograph of her, taken before her injury. "My name is Mr. Saad. Welcome." He introduced her to his wife, Yabitha, who stood quietly by his side. "We'll be sticking together for a while."

Marwa was afraid. They drove to Saad Alazzawi's home in an old Mercedes. Through the fog, she peered out at a freeway and its maze of speeding cars; at billboards with women in bikinis and men with bare chests; at glowing, red and blue neon signs and thousands of white lights from homes and businesses stretched as far as she could see.

She would remember thinking of home. She wanted to cry.

Saad had emigrated from Iraq in the 1970s. Wiry, with bushy salt-and-pepper brows and piercing eyes, he had spent years running a small Muslim school in South Los Angeles. Then things changed. Now, in the same building, he rented a banquet hall for weddings and quinceanera parties. Still, he was an eager helping hand in the Muslim community.

Though they shared a homeland, Saad and Marwa were different. He was Sunni and she was Shiite. He was strict and she was headstrong. Saad had a program for her: He would teach her to read and write better Arabic, educate her generally and train her in the ways of the Koran. He would try to keep her happy, in spite of all the medical tribulations she faced.

Grueling process begins

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