YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Iraqi teen's dream of returning to L.A. comes true

Friends of Marwa Naim, who was wounded during the U.S.-led invasion, worried for her safety when she went back to her homeland after surgery at UCLA in 2006. Now she's back in the U.S. and happy.

July 13, 2009|KURT STREETER

Her words made my heart sink.

"I want to go back," she said, speaking by phone from her home in a rough section of Baghdad. She was speaking of America. "I want to go back, as soon as I can."

This was three summers ago. I wasn't sure, not until last month, not until I saw Marwa Naim walk once again through the doors at UCLA Medical Center, that her dream would ever become real.

I want to go back. . . .

When she said this, in August of 2006, Marwa had just returned to Iraq after spending seven long, eye-opening months in America. I'd documented her journey; a tale of courage and the horror of war. Marwa had suffered terribly during the U.S.-led invasion. When she was 9, during an air raid, a bomb had ripped through her home. Her right thumb was shredded. Her nose was blown off. Worse than anything, her mother died.

Strangers, their politics and warfare, had taken almost everything from her. But it was also strangers, working for two aid groups, who had found an American hospital willing to help at no cost and a doctor who would make every effort to restore her pretty looks. UCLA was the hospital. Dr. Tim Miller, chief of plastic surgery, the doctor. Over the course of several difficult operations -- through a season of hardship that began with her fearful arrival in America, all alone because her father had to stay home and care for her siblings -- Dr. Miller did what he could. It wasn't perfect, and nothing could be done for her thumb, but he built her a nose.

And then, just when she seemed settled, everything would change again. Like several-score other Iraqi children who have been injured during the war, Marwa was allowed to come to this country only on a temporary visa. It didn't make much sense, didn't matter that her Iraqi neighborhood dripped in chaos, rules were rules, she had to go home.

I feared the worst. I knew Miller had vowed to have her return so he could finish the job, but I worried her family would become refugees in their own country, as so many have, and that nobody would be able to find her again. I worried she'd get caught in the web of destruction. That she'd be killed.

Then, this May, a call came from UCLA. "It's about Marwa," said the voice on the other end.

I held my breath.

"She's coming back! Coming back, for some finishing touches on her nose."

It turns out that over the last year, UCLA and the nonprofits -- the Palestine Children's Relief Fund and the Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict -- had worked diligently behind the scenes to have Marwa return. They had found her father, readied a new visa, bought plane tickets and arranged all the details.

Dr. Miller was a prime mover. He felt he understood her, having seen war's madness as a medic in the jungles of South Vietnam. Marwa had never left his thoughts. "She's just so delightful, such a complex and wonderful child," he said recently, a nod to a stubborn streak that, at times on that first visit, had veered into petulance but also to her easy charm and playful manner.

Miller said he'd met few people as resilient. "I've spent many a night wondering and worrying about her. I'd watch the news and see some of the terrible things happening there and think, 'Where is she . . . is Marwa OK?' "

Certainly, she had returned home looking better. She was no longer mercilessly taunted. Her prospects would be better as she approached marriage age.

Now 15, Marwa speaks of her nose calmly. "It good," she says, one of her stock English phrases. But sadly, tellingly, as if there is now nothing that can faze her, she discusses the hardship faced daily in Iraq with the same steely calm.

Shortly after returning home, Marwa and her family -- her father, his new bride, her three siblings -- were forced by threats of violence to move to another neighborhood, about 40 minutes from Baghdad. When they left, she says, the home was firebombed. Now they live in a one-bedroom home with a roof that has partly caved in.

Her father has had trouble finding work. Her 16-year-old brother puts in long hours at a car repair shop. He makes about $5 a day, she says, money that's key to feeding her family.

She's an observer. A mimic. Wise beyond her years. Sharp. When Marwa went home, there were hopes she would take advantage of these talents by returning to school. She dreamed of becoming an architect. But because of the tumult, she says, she has been unable to return to school. It's been four years since she was regularly in a classroom.

So it is that she has spent most days cooped up at home. It's too dangerous to go outside much. She cares for her siblings, helps make the food, cleans. Over and over, she reads letters given by her L.A. caretakers when she left here. When her tears dry, she watches Turkish soap operas and Jackie Chan movies, sometimes straining to hear them above the crackle of gunfire coming from her neighborhood.

Los Angeles Times Articles