Iraqi boy in care of uncle, LI surgeons

Hasan Khazaal, through an interpreter, tells how his nephew was disfigured in an explosion in Iraq and how his journey to an LI hospital will hopefully restore his life. Videojournalist: J. Conrad Williams Jr. (April 21, 2011)

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Zeenabdeen Hadi, 4 years old and a long way from his home in Iraq, was insistent: He'd eat cake for dinner and wanted no part of the vegetables.

His uncle held firm.

"You're having surgery next week," said Hasan Hadi Khazaal, who turned 21 a few weeks ago and has become the boy's surrogate parent. "You have to have nutrition."

The uncle and his nephew, who faces months of plastic surgery at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola to rebuild his bomb-scarred face, are living in a Ronald McDonald house in New Hyde Park, Queens.

Hadi -- he uses Hadi, his father's name rather than Khazaal, his grandfather's -- has been both father and mother to the boy since he was hurt in a 2008 car bombing at his home in Dujail, 35 miles north of Baghdad.

The bombing downed a power line that burned the child's lips and seared his face down to the bone. Although Hadi pulled Zeenabdeen from the wreckage, gave him CPR, and rushed him to a hospital, an Iraqi doctor gave him no chance to live.

"The doctor told me all the people in the graveyard had a better chance of awakening from the dead than he had a chance of living," said Hadi, who refused to accept the Iraqi doctor's assessment, and found lifesaving treatment at an American military hospital instead.

"I just wanted him to live," he added. "Even if he had to be hooked to a machine to breathe, I wanted him to live."

The uncle's lifesaving actions have become a life-changing mission. Doctors Friday will perform the second of a series of surgeries designed to restore Zeenabdeen's face -- procedures that could take as long as six months to complete.

 

Personality 'reels you in'

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Even before the bombing, the boy's embrace of life had won Hadi's heart.

"He's like a fisherman," said Hadi, an athletic man who loves soccer and has an incandescent smile. "He reels you in."

While still in Iraq, Zeenabdeen's wounds had been stabilized at a U.S. military hospital during 14 weeks of skin grafts and other treatments. But bone and scar damage left him so deformed that the child could not fully close his mouth or eat or drink normally.

Hadi said his brother, a policeman, and his sister-in-law, who are Zeenabdeen's parents, were overwhelmed by the child's wounds. She had been about to deliver the couple's third child when the bombing occurred. "His mother couldn't look at him and was afraid of him," Hadi said. "In the three months he was in the hospital, she visited him twice. So I took care of him instead."

He moved into the hospital with Zeenabdeen during his convalescence, playing with the child by day and passing nights on a cot.

After being discharged from the hospital, Hadi brought Zeenabdeen to live with him and the child's grandparents. He dropped out of high school to be the boy's caregiver and has taken responsibility for Zeenabdeen as his own child ever since, earning a living as an auto mechanic in order to provide for his nephew.

"Anyone who will marry me will have to take him, too," said Hadi, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. "It's a two-for-one deal."

Last year, American troops told Hadi about Global Medical Relief, a charity run by a Staten Island woman, Elissa Montanti, who helps bring children injured in war zones and disaster areas to the United States for medical treatment. In April, she arranged for Hadi and Zeenabdeen to stay at the Ronald McDonald House, and for volunteer doctors from Long Island Plastic Surgical Group to perform a series of facial reconstructive surgeries.

 

Violence continues

The violence in Iraq that led to this life-changing journey for both uncle and nephew remains part of their lives.

More than three weeks ago, as Zeenabdeen was in the operating room for the first of his surgeries, Hadi received a telephone call and burst into tears. His mother told him that three of his childhood friends had been killed that day in a car bombing.

Eight years before Hadi was born, gunmen from a banned Shia political party based in Dujail tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein there as his motorcade drove past a grove of date palms.

Hussein ordered the arrests of all suspected party members and their families. In the next few days, 393 men and 394 women and children were taken to a notorious prison in Baghdad, according to research by Human Rights Watch. Scores were hanged, and witnesses testified at Hussein's 2005 trial that some detainees were tortured to death.

Two of Hadi's uncles had been among those taken away. They were never seen again.

Hadi was still a child when he began hearing stories about his uncles, told in whispered tones by family members. They terrified him.

"I would hear the stories, but I wouldn't want to," he said. "It always had to do with the same thing over and over -- killing."

Hadi said he hopes that by getting plastic surgery for Zeenabdeen, he will spare the child from that recurring trauma.

"He should not have to grow up that way," Hadi said. "That's what makes me want to protect him."

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