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Ailing Iraqi orphan picks out a father

A cerebral palsy- afflicted boy meets a soldier from Wisconsin and forms a bond. But how to defeat the bureaucracy?

December 30, 2007|Carrie Antlfinger | Associated Press

MAUSTON, WIS. — Capt. Scott Southworth knew he'd face violence, political strife and blistering heat when he was deployed to one of Baghdad's most dangerous areas.

But he didn't expect Ala'a Eddeen.

Ala'a was 9 years old, strong of will but weak of body -- he suffered from cerebral palsy and weighed just 55 pounds. He lived among about 20 kids with physical or mental disabilities at the Mother Teresa orphanage, under the care of nuns who preserved this small oasis in a dangerous place.

On Sept. 6, 2003, halfway through his 13-month deployment, Southworth and his military police unit paid a visit to the orphanage. They played and chatted with the children; Southworth was talking with one little girl when Ala'a dragged himself to the soldier's side.

Black-haired and brown-eyed, Ala'a spoke to the 31-year-old American in the limited English he had learned from the sisters. He recalled the bombs that struck government buildings across the Tigris River.

"Bomb-Bing! Bomb-Bing!" Ala'a said, raising and lowering his fist.

"I'm here now. You're fine," the captain said.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage again and again. The soldiers would race kids in their wheelchairs, sit them in Humvees and help the sisters feed them.

To Southworth, Ala'a was like a little brother. But Ala'a -- who had longed for a soldier to rescue him -- secretly began referring to Southworth as "Baba," Arabic for "Daddy."

Then, around Christmas, a sister told Southworth that Ala'a was getting too big. He would have to move to a government-run facility within a year.

"Best-case scenario was that he would stare at a blank wall for the rest of his life," Southworth said.

To this day, he recalls the moment when he resolved that would not happen.

"I'll adopt him," he said.

Prayers and talk

Before Southworth left for Iraq, he was chief of staff for a state representative. He was single, worked long days and squeezed in his service as a national guardsman -- military service was a family tradition. His great-great-great-grandfather served in the Civil War, his grandfather in World War II, his father in Vietnam.

The family had lived in the tiny central Wisconsin city of New Lisbon for 150 years. Southworth was raised as an evangelical Christian; he attended law school with a goal of public service, running unsuccessfully for state Assembly at the age of 25.

There were so many reasons why he couldn't bring a handicapped Iraqi boy into his world.

He had no wife or home; he knew nothing of raising a disabled child; he had little money and planned to run for district attorney in his home county.

Just as important, Iraqi law prohibits foreigners from adopting Iraqi children.

Southworth prayed and talked with family and friends.

His mother, who had cared for many disabled children, explained the difficulty. She also told him to take one step at a time and let God work.

Southworth's decision was cemented in spring 2004, while he and his comrades watched Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ." Jesus Christ's sacrifice moved him. He imagined meeting Christ and Ala'a in heaven, where Ala'a asked: "Baba, why didn't you ever come back to get me?"

"Everything that I came up with as a response I felt ashamed. I wouldn't want to stand in the presence of Jesus and Ala'a and say those things to him."

And so, in his last weeks in Iraq, Southworth got approval from Iraq's Minister of Labor to take Ala'a to the United States for medical care.

Wins office

His parents had filed signatures so he wouldn't miss the cutoff to run for district attorney. He knocked on doors, telling people he wanted to be tough on criminals who committed injustices against children.

He never mentioned his intention to adopt Ala'a. He won office -- securing a job and an income.

Everything seemed to be in place. But when Southworth contacted an immigration attorney, he was told it would be nearly impossible to bring Ala'a to the United States.

Undaunted, Southworth and the attorney started the paperwork to bring Ala'a over on humanitarian parole, used for urgent reasons or significant public benefit.

A local doctor, a cerebral palsy expert, a Minneapolis hospital, all said they would provide Ala'a free care. Other letters of support came from a minister, the school district, the lieutenant governor, a congressman, a chaplain, a sister at the orphanage and an Iraqi doctor.

"We crossed political boundaries. We crossed religious boundaries. There was just a massive effort -- all on behalf of this little boy who desperately needed people to actually take some action and not just feel sorry for him," Southworth says.

He mailed the packet on Dec. 16, 2004, to the Department of Homeland Security.

On New Year's Eve, his cellphone rang. It was Ala'a.

"What are you doing?" Southworth asked him. "I was praying,'" Ala'a responded.

"Well, what were you praying for?"

"I prayed that you would come to take me to America," Ala'a said.

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