Child victims of war get treated on LI

From left, Zeenabdeen Hadi, Sajiad Lafta and Sajiad

From left, Zeenabdeen Hadi, Sajiad Lafta and Sajiad Shakir help a new patient, Malak Elshami, adjust to the Ronald McDonald House. (July 28, 2011) (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

The missile, fired by troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, exploded in her bedroom May 13, severing one of her legs and killing her two siblings .

On Thursday, 5-year-old Malak Elshami arrived at a Long Island guesthouse with her father. In the house with her were a half-dozen other children who had been wounded in war zones around the world, including Zeenabdeen Hadi, a 4-year-old Iraqi who moved into the house with his uncle last spring to await plastic surgery on his face scarred in a bombing.

Like the others in the house, Malak was on Long Island for medical care and for the hope of a better life. The Ronald McDonald House on 76th Avenue in New Hyde Park has been transformed into a safe house, far from the fighting.


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She quickly fit in with the other children. Zeenabdeen, who has jagged scars that crisscross his face, amused her with a hand puppet shaped like a pig. A young Iraqi, who like Malak lost a leg and a pair of siblings in a bombing, elicited peals of laughter from the girl by batting a trio of helium balloons at her. A third Iraqi child, who was burned from the waist down when a bomb ignited a car he was in, killing his grandfather, offered to show her how to play a video game.

"She understands this will be a long process, but she's glad to be here," said the girl's father, Mustafa Elshami, who accompanied her to Long Island. "I'm happy I'm in America, and my daughter will get treated."

The Ronald McDonald House will be their home for months as they receive medical attention, from plastic surgery to new limbs. In their war-torn lives, the house in the leafy suburbs is unlike anything they have ever known.

 

Their Good Samaritan

The children have been brought to the United States by a Staten Island woman who has made medical rescue work a personal mission.

Elissa Montanti has brought some 150 seriously injured child victims of war or natural disasters to the United States for rehabilitative treatments since opening a one-person charitable organization out of her home in 1997. She declined to specify how much money had been donated, but said the group has collected about $1 million since being featured on "60 Minutes" in March.

Working through a network of doctors and hospitals here and in Philadelphia, Montanti has arranged treatments that typically involve both prosthetic limbs and plastic surgery. She also handles arrangements that allow children and caretakers to make the trip, arranging visas, soliciting money for airline tickets, finding housing and setting up transportation to treatment facilities.

"She's like a mother and a sister to us," said Mustafa Elshami, who contacted Montanti after learning of her Global Medical Relief charity from a doctor in Libya.

The stories told by the children Montanti has brought here help to illustrate the effect of war-related violence.

In Iraq alone, nearly 1,000 children were killed in attacks between 2008 and 2010, according to a United Nations report.

Two of the children who greeted Malak as she arrived had themselves suffered horrific wounds within a mile of each other in 2008. Sajjad Hadi, 7, lost two of his brothers and had a leg amputated in a Sept. 12, 2008, bombing that killed more than 30 people. The other boy, Zeenabdeen, was nearly killed in a Dujail car bombing six months earlier.

 

Coping with loss

Montanti says she began trying to help children harmed overseas in the mid-1990s as a way of coping with her grief over the deaths of her mother and grandparents. Friends suggested that she might restore meaning to her life by organizing help for children affected by the just-ended war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

'We could use a lot more'

In 1996, Montanti got in touch with the Bosnian UN ambassador with an offer to raise money for school supplies. He replied by reading to her a letter from a teenage boy who had both arms and a leg blown off by a land mine. "He said, 'We could use a lot more than just pencils and notebooks,' " Montanti recalled.

The child, Kenan Malkic, had been playing soccer near his home when he tripped a mine. "I was really busted up and in a lot of pain," said Malkic, who is now 28 and works with Montanti. "And when she called the house, I couldn't help thinking, there's no way. It's not like she was some organization like the Red Cross."

Montanti began trying to find a way to get prosthetic limbs for Malkic. She called doctors and hospitals, asking if any would help for free. She appealed to airlines for transportation. Six weeks later, Malkic was living in her Staten Island home while being treated at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

She held a fundraising concert attended by Dr. Tom Davenport, a partner with the Long Island Plastic Surgical Group. Moved by Montanti's appeal, Davenport persuaded members of his practice to take on her work. A nonprofit formed by his practice -- Mission: Restore -- helps find medical specialists and hospitals to donate time and resources to treat children brought here by Montanti.

"What she does allows us to do the charity work we do," said Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh of Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, who has provided pro-bono services to several children Montanti brought here.

Montanti said she once had wanted to join the Peace Corps so she could help children abroad. "Now, I have children all over the world," she said. "This works for me."

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