When his uncle became misty-eyed recently while reading a letter he received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the scarred face of Zeenabdeen Hadi, 5, contorted with concern.
The Iraqi child, who has endured more than two dozen surgeries since a car bombing brought him to Long Island for medical attention, wondered what had upset his uncle.
"Hasan, why are you sad?," the boy asked his uncle, Hasan Hadi Khazaal.
But it was relief, not sadness, that had brought tears to Khazaal's eyes.
The letter dated Sept. 7 was a notice that their application for refugee status in the United States had been approved. To their relief, they would not have to return to Iraq and can now begin new lives in America.
"It's a feeling I couldn't explain," Khazaal said of his reaction to the news. "I felt like I was flying."
They had come to the United States in April 2011, at the invitation of volunteer doctors at the Garden City-based Long Island Plastic Surgical Group. A 2008 car bombing that had nearly killed Zeenabdeen near his home in Dujail, Iraq, left his face so scarred that his mouth was reduced to an unmoving hole. His speech was mostly unintelligible. He drooled uncontrollably.
Zeenabdeen spent more than two months recovering at a U.S. military hospital near Baghdad, with Khazaal as a nearly constant companion.
Exclusive subscription offer
Newsday covers the stories that matter most to Long Islanders. We dig deep to uncover the facts, hold the powerful in check and keep a watchful eye on Long Island.
Your digital subscription, starting at $1, supports local journalism vital to the community.SUBSCRIBE NOW
It was at the military hospital that both their trip to Long Island -- and the close relationship with Americans that led to their asylum application -- were set into motion.
While Khazaal helped care for his nephew, U.S. soldiers told him about a Staten Island woman who arranged to bring injured children to the United States for medical care. He emailed the woman, who persuaded plastic surgeons on Long Island to perform what became a series of eight operations that restored function to Zeenabdeen's mouth.
But as Khazaal's concerns over his nephew's health receded, his worries grew that their close relationships with Americans might make them targets upon their return to Iraq.
Although President Barack Obama ended U.S. combat operations in Iraq more than a year ago, factional violence remains a serious threat to Iraqis who have ties to Americans. Three days before Khazaal received their asylum approval letter, dissident attacks across Iraq killed at least 60 people, including 14 in Khazaal's Dujail hometown north of Baghdad.
"We do see that as a credible fear," said Charity Tooze, a Washington, D.C., spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "You can see from the attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East that anti-American sentiments can be deadly."
Khazaal said he filed an asylum application because he did not want Zeenabdeen or himself to become victims.
"Yes, it's very dangerous -- a lot of bombs," said Khazaal, who asked that Newsday withhold information about where he now lives or where Zeenabdeen attends kindergarten. "Abdeen was hurt already. We don't want him hurt again."
Khazaal contacted Commack immigration attorney William Streppone two months after arriving in the United States. He and his nephew formally applied for asylum in February.
But about the same time, their eligibility to stay at the Ronald McDonald guesthouse that had hosted them in New Hyde Park since their arrival in America, ran out. Diane Avedissian, a volunteer who had been helping them learn English, assisted them in securing temporary housing; cooked lamb, tomato and okra dishes learned from her Armenian mother that were similar to Iraqi cuisine; and treated Zeenabdeen to "Spider-Man" on Broadway for his April 25 birthday.
But the thought that they might have to return to their violence-roiled neighborhood in Iraq continued to hang over Khazaal until Sept. 12, when he opened the letter from Homeland Security.
As he read its contents, the little boy whose life he saved looked up at him.
Khazaal said he felt a relief he had not experienced since he scooped his nephew from the bomb's rubble. "I said 'Abdeen, we're Americans now.' "