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Scars Repaired, 13-Year-Old To Head Back To Iraq

Wed, 04/21/2010 - 6:28am

Kathy Barks Hoffman, Associated Press Writer

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The badly scarred 12-year-old who arrived from Iraq last spring with Army National Guard Maj. David Howell has had quite a year in Michigan—dressing up as Batman for Halloween, playing video games, getting pitching tips from the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander and being the ball boy for a high school soccer team.

Mohammed, now 13, also has undergone five surgeries to regain the use of his left hand, rebuild his left ear and attach skin grafts that replaced his scarred scalp where hair no longer would grow after he was badly burned in a house fire as an infant. He can wear a glove to play his newest American passion, baseball, and close his left eye. He no longer needs a cap to cover his scars.

"He's really happy that he needs a brush," said Howell, 56, of Grand Ledge. "His self-esteem is way higher than when he got here."

On Sunday, Howell will head back to Iraq with Mohammed, a shy, slender boy who approached Howell at an entry control point in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in November 2008. Mohammed asked Howell—a Michigan Army National Guard physician's assistant who was serving his second deployment in Iraq—to save him and take him to America.

Howell spent a frantic six months getting identification and a visa for Mohammed and lining up plastic surgeon Dr. Edward Lanigan at Michigan State University to perform free surgery and a Muslim host family in East Lansing.

Howell won't publicize Mohammed's middle or last names because the boy's family may still be in danger in Iraq. His father was killed by insurgents three years ago for working as a translator for the U.S. Marines. The insurgents killed his uncle when he went to the morgue to identify and claim the body, and they warned Mohammed's mother they would kill her and her children if she ever contacted U.S. soldiers.

His mother and 19-year-old brother, Yousif, will be waiting for Mohammed when he and Howell reach the Baghdad airport Tuesday. They'll take him back to Ramadi for a celebration with his three brothers, two sisters and extended family.

"We've missed him a lot and we're waiting to go pick him up at the airport," Yousif said through a translator Tuesday in a phone call from Iraq. "We're looking forward to seeing how his hair looks now, his ear, his nose, those things that were affecting his daily life."

The teen also has gained 26 pounds and grown 3.5 inches during his year in Michigan. He now wears glasses, improving the vision in his damaged left eye from 20/400 to 20/40.

Howell set up a foundation and collected donations for Mohammed's hospitalizations. At one point he couldn't cover $18,000; a donor paid the bill.

"At every step of the way, someone came forward to help me," Howell said.

Ziena Saeed, 33, and her husband, Dr. Ritha Naji, took in Mohammed to live with them, their 8- and 10-year-old sons and the daughter who was born after Mohammed arrived.

They speak the same Iraqi dialect he does, and Saeed, who wears a head scarf, frequently fixes Iraqi food. But he had to get used to eight-hour school days and "sitting at the table having breakfast together," she said.

Ice also was a novelty. "Our ice maker broke because he used it so much. That was a treat for him, because he didn't have it in Iraq," she said.

While Mohammed is looking forward to seeing his family again, "it's going to be hard" to leave Howell's family and his adopted family in East Lansing, he said.

They plan to keep in touch through phone calls, e-mails and the Internet, and Saeed hopes Mohammed can come back for a graduate degree.

"Maybe for other kids, having the burns and having the other things would be really hard," she said. "He overlooks all these things that are challenges for him. ... He's a really optimistic kid."

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