Sunday, July 26, 2009

Helping innocent victims

'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.

At least the movies have helped with one thing: "English coming good," she told me the other day, her deep, dark eyes gleaming as we ate French toast at Mimi's Cafe near Griffith Park. She had gone there with Theresa Moussa, a UCLA Medical Center liaison who became a mother figure during her first trip. "Understand more," Marwa said of herself, haltingly, in English. "Speak more? Oh my God, very, very hard."

When I asked how much she'd missed this country -- a place she once feared, blaming American bombs for her disfigurement and her mother's death -- she let Theresa translate.

"The whole time I wanted to return, even if it was just for a little while," she said. "I just wanted to feel this place again."

How time changes things. She is taller, her face fuller, her shoulders growing strong. She has the same lightheartedness and little of the petulance. But underneath it all, there remains a deep wariness.

"Now I am back, I am happy," she said, through Theresa. "I don't want to think of leaving again, this hurts too much. . . . The future? Who knows the future?" '

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