Bilal Sharif speaks little English and his smile was shy.
"Hello," the 7-year-old whispered into the microphone at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park. Just months before, the Afghan boy, born in a refugee camp and living in eastern Afghanistan, had never seen indoor plumbing or electric light switches, much less a news conference with popping cameras.
But Tuesday, the slight boy in the wheelchair was the center of attention. Born with part of his bladder outside of his body -- a rare and painful condition known as bladder exstrophy -- Bilal sat next to his surgeon, Dr. Moneer Hanna, a pediatric urologist.
In a four-hour operation on Nov. 14, the surgeon and his team placed the bladder inside Bilal and closed up the hole that had been leaking urine. Hanna said he had performed more than 100 such operations, but most were done at birth. The pain from Bilal's open wound would have been "incomprehensible," Hanna said, and the boy had been at constant risk of dying from an infection. But after a second operation to take place in about six months to make him continent, Hanna said, he has a chance of normal bladder function.
"The fact that Bilal has survived in a nation with one of the world's highest infant mortality rates is a miracle in itself," said Donna Clementoni, outreach director for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, an office set up by the Department of Defense.
Bilal's saga began more than two years ago when his plight came to the attention of Army Reservist Maj. Glenn Battschinger, Clementoni's friend and a member of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command based in Staten Island. In January, Battschinger -- now stationed in Africa -- traveled to Afghanistan to try to get Bilal, the fifth of nine children, a visa to the United States. It took Bilal and his father six dangerous trips to Kabul before he was given a humanitarian parole visa in the fall, Clementoni said. She said his current visa is good until next fall.
Within weeks of getting the visa, Battschinger brought Bilal to the States, where he has been living with Laureen Dempsey near Scranton, Pa. A nurse, Dempsey said Bilal had a terrible bladder infection and was so undernourished it took seven weeks -- during which he gained 13 pounds -- before he was healthy enough for the surgery. "He eats like nothing you've ever seen," Dempsey said. In one day he ate five 16 oz. New York strips, she said.
Dempsey, who does not speak Bilal's native Pashto, said they nonetheless communicate easily. "He's a brilliant child," she said.
Although he came from a place without running water, within a short time he had learned to find Afghan music on her iPad, she said.
Bilal's father, who works in a brick factory, told the boy he wants him to get an education while he is in the United States, Dempsey said. He has been studying Pashto and English but, Dempsey said at the news conference, he can't wait to go to school.
At this, Bilal flashed another brief smile.