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Issue Date: April 2010


American Girl

Teeba Furat Fahdil Hameed is a Daisy Scout who loves her dog and playing with other kids. She's also an 8-year-old who is facing her 12th surgery this month. Her family's tragic encounter with a roadside bomb on an Iraq street in 2003 changed the trajectory of her life permanently. It also changed the lives of the couple that has grown to love her as their own.
Jennifer Keirn

Her eyes. Those dark, round eyes.

Her face and scalp are mottled by thick, raised burn scars. A few wispy patches of dark hair remain on her otherwise bald head. The only things the burns haven't disfigured are her eyes, which stare out from the pages of the morning paper.

Like most summer Sundays, Barbara Marlowe is at her kitchen table in Concord Township with a cup of coffee — a quick 20-minute scan of the day's news before heading out for a round of golf with her husband, Tim.

The deep, imploring eyes of the 4-year-old sitting on her father's lap sucks the air out of the room. Everything around Barbara disappears. The brilliant July sunlight retreats from the wall of windows that looks out onto the fairways of Quail Hollow Country Club. She sees nothing but this little Iraqi girl who's halfway around the world.

The wounded girl's eyes are speaking to her. Help me. Will you help me?

It's 15 minutes before Barbara regains her breath, and an ache, a deep sadness, has settled in her chest.

She grabs her scissors from a drawer next to the refrigerator and cuts out the photo and article about the little girl. She continues to stare at the picture as she walks upstairs to her loft-style home office then sinks heavily into her desk chair. Barbara tapes the article to the blank wall over her desk, just above the phone and computer she uses in her work every day.

It will stay there for the next year until she sees those eyes again, in person this time.

"C'mon, Barbara, it's time to go." Tim is anxious to leave. They have a tee time to make.

Barbara pulls herself away from the little girl's eyes, tears collecting in her own, and follows him to the car. As they back out of the driveway and make the short drive to the golf course, Barbara can't shake this single thought from her mind: I have to help this girl.

Teeba Furat Fahdil Hameed was 19 months old, riding with her family in a taxicab along a road in Baquba, about 40 miles north of Baghdad. She sat in the back seat with her 3-year-old brother, Yousef, while her father, Furat, rode in front with the driver.

It was Sept. 2, 2003, 166 days since Gen. Tommy Franks and U.S. troops surged into the country under Operation Iraqi Freedom. Guerrilla fighting had shredded the capital of Iraq's Diyala province, a town of more than 450,000, with insurgent cells attacking U.S. convoys along these roads and improvised bombs hidden in trash or dead animals.

They were on their way to a shopping area near their home on Baquba's outskirts to get new clothes for Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when the taxi struck one of those roadside bombs.

It tore through the back seat. Teeba and Yousef took the brunt of the blast.

They were badly burned, but alive.

Little Teeba's face, head and hands were scorched by the explosion. The cartilage of her ears was burned off, and second-degree burns on her scalp ensured that much of her hair would never grow again.

Yousef wasn't as lucky. As they were being transported to a nearby government-run hospital, he died.

Like many of Iraq's public hospitals at the time, the facility where Teeba was taken lacked qualified medical professionals, basic equipment, blood and other supplies. Nurses further damaged her skin by scrubbing her wounds with water.

Three days after the accident, Teeba's father finally got her to a Red Cross burn clinic in Baghdad, where she was treated with dry powder and ointments.

Forty days after her accident, Teeba was released from the hospital and permitted to return to her home in a village outside Baquba, which remained one of the country's most dangerous areas.

There, she faced a different challenge: People stared, they pointed. As she got older, kids shunned her, told her she looked scary. People asked her family, "Can't you do something about her face?"

She grew her remaining hair long, but it wasn't enough to hide the large patches of bald, burned skin. By age 4, it was nearing time for Teeba to start school, and her parents worried that other children would make fun of her.

All Teeba wanted was a wig. Maybe then the other kids would accept her.

So her father decided to do something. Through a connection at the Central Blood Bank in Baghdad, he made contact with U.S. journalist James Palmer. Teeba's father risked the dangerous roads of Iraq, traveling by bus the 40 miles to Baghdad with his daughter. He asked Palmer to tell her story, in the hopes that someone would help.

I can get her a wig, Barbara thinks immediately.

At 51, she's a tall, blue-eyed blonde with a stubborn determination. She and Tim have been married almost 20 years. He has three children from a previous marriage, but Barbara, who is divorced, never had children of her own and always wanted them.

They both have busy careers. Tim owns an East Side residential cleaning business. Barbara is an event planner, fundraiser and avid volunteer.

She has a rule, though: no kids charities. It's an all-too-painful reminder of what she doesn't have.

But just a few months before she saw Teeba's picture, Barbara had broken her own rule. A close friend recruited her as co-chair of a fundraiser for Wigs for Kids, a Westlake-based nonprofit that donates human-hair wigs for kids who have lost their hair due to illness or injury. It wasn't the type of project she'd normally have taken on — it was far from her Lake County home and violated her no-kids policy. Yet, inexplicably, she heard herself saying yes to it.

Now she was saying yes again. Yes, I can get her a wig. That would be easy. Maybe I can get her more than a wig, she thinks.

Barbara barely mentions to Tim that she's begun looking into helping Teeba.

It's Monday, July 17, 2006, the day after Teeba's picture appeared in the paper. Barbara sits at her desk with the clipped article and Teeba's haunting eyes staring down on her. The ache still hasn't left her chest.

She finds an e-mail address for James Palmer, the correspondent who reported Teeba's story in the newspaper.

"Hi, James, regarding Teeba Furat, the 4-year-old who survived the bombing in Iraq — I can get this little girl a wig. I'm affiliated with Wigs for Kids."

She hits the send button and starts working the phones.

That day, and every day for the next few weeks, Barbara sits under Teeba's watchful gaze and calls anyone she can think of who might be able to help.

She calls Wigs for Kids founder Jeffrey Paul, who readily agrees to provide a wig. She calls a friend who works in media relations at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital to see what it might take to get Teeba to the United States for medical treatment. She calls airlines seeking help with arranging a flight for Teeba to Cleveland and contacts the Ronald McDonald House for accommodations. She calls reporters, hoping media coverage might unearth others willing to help.

All the while, things are happening fast. The day after her e-mail, Barbara gets a response from Palmer, who shares Barbara's plans with Teeba's family. By the weekend, they agree to allow their daughter to travel to Cleveland for a wig and medical evaluation. Within a few weeks, Barbara meets with Rainbow's head of pediatrics, who agrees to evaluate Teeba.

Barbara is hopeful. But Palmer clues her in to the fact that the process might not be as simple as she thinks. Teeba and her grandmother, who will be accompanying her, need passports and visas to enter the United States. Barbara sends him $100 to give the family for applications.

And she waits.

And waits.

Summer ends, and so does Barbara's initial flurry of calls and meetings. Temperatures cool into fall, and Barbara's initial elation chills to frustration. She still hits the phones but now hears the same thing: Nothing can be done until passports are issued and visas are granted.

That fall, a bit of hope. Barbara hears about an organization based in Kent called the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, which recruits host families with which to place children coming to the U.S. for medical treatment.

In its nearly 20-year history, the organization has never seen a case like Barbara's, in which a family is pursuing a specific child. But the staff knows how to navigate bureaucracy. They manage to secure passports for Teeba and her grandmother and get them to Jordan, where they wait some more.

Now Barbara directs her phone-calling campaign toward the Palestine Children's Relief Fund: What have you heard? Does she have the visas yet? When is she coming?

"I'm used to doing something, working toward a goal and getting a result," Barbara says now. "I was stuck. Nothing was happening."

By April, her anxiety has reached its pinnacle. After more news of a delay in Teeba's visa, she stalks to her driveway. It's sunny but cool as she raises her face to the sky and yells out loud at God. "You put me here, you put this little girl in my heart, now why aren't you helping me?"

As she turns to head back inside, Barbara sees lying at her feet a small white golf ball marker bearing the words "God Loves You." She's certain it hadn't been there before. She starts crying.

She knows everything will be OK.

Peace comes over Barbara on that day and makes bearable the months of waiting and delays that follow until the end of June 2007.

Barbara's on the 18th hole of the golf course at Quail Hollow Country Club when her cell phone rings. It's the Palestine Children's Relief Fund: "When do you want her?"

July 16, 2007.

One year to the day since Barbara first saw Teeba's photograph, she and Tim arrive at 8 p.m. at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport gate B3 to wait for the United Airlines flight carrying Teeba and her grandmother. A translator and a TV news crew accompany them.

Teeba's flight is due at 9:30 p.m. But when the plane arrives, she is not on it.

They get word that her flight from Jordan to Chicago was late. She missed her connection and will be on the next flight. The group heads down the concourse for a bite, but Barbara can't eat a thing.

Close to midnight, four hours after their arrival, Flight 442 from Chicago pulls to the jetway. Nearly the entire plane empties. Then, finally, through the door of the jetway and into the lights of Channel 3's cameras, walks a tired and confused Teeba holding the hand of her grandmother, Amal Hadi Jabbar.

Amal is wearing a traditional black-and-white Muslim hijab that shows only her face and hands. Teeba wears a pink and white top and skirt with a floppy white sun hat to cover her burned scalp.

Barbara crouches to Teeba's eye level. She is real. Barbara loves her instantly.

"Hi, sweetheart," she says, her voice breaking. As Teeba rubs her tired eyes, Barbara holds out a fuzzy brown stuffed bear with a bow around its neck. "My name is Barbara. This is for you."

Teeba wants to ask the doctor something.

She's been in the U.S. just a week, and she's making her first visit to Dr. Arun Gosain, chief of pediatric plastic surgery at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital. It's just one of the appointments Barbara has ready and waiting for her.

It has taken Teeba some time to warm up to Gosain. But now she asks her question. She chatters away in Arabic to the translator who's accompanied them.

"She wants to know, •Will you make my face beautiful?' " the translator relays.

Gosain smiles. "Well, we're certainly going to try to make it more beautiful than it is now."

As the interpreter translates, she returns his smile without any understanding of what's ahead of her.

Teeba expects the American doctor to give her a face cream that will remove her scars. Instead, Gosain lays out a strategy — a facial reconstruction that will require multiple surgeries over at least three years.

It's a shock to Teeba's grandmother, who never expected to be away from her home country for so long. And despite their year of preparations, even Barbara and Tim are surprised.

"We thought she would come, have a few surgeries and be back home in a matter of months," Barbara says now.

The Ronald McDonald House doesn't last long.

The Marlowes drive back and forth constantly, visiting Teeba and her grandmother, shuttling Teeba to doctor visits.

"Why don't they just move in with us?" Tim suggests.

In September 2007, Teeba and her grandmother, Amal, move into the Marlowes' home, and Barbara goes everywhere with an English-Arabic dictionary under one arm. Barbara and Amal call each other "okht," Arabic for sister. The Marlowes even hire a tutor to teach the pair English, which Teeba soaks up within three months.

They help Teeba adapt to life here, teaching her to use toilet paper and a toothbrush and to eat with utensils. They take her to a swimming pool for the first time, buy her toys and clothes of her own, and arrange play dates with her first American friend, a boy named Nicholas. "She's like a little flower that bloomed overnight," Barbara says.

Among her first English words are "Mama Barbara" and "Papa Tim." She crawls into Barbara's lap asking for her fingernails to be painted with hand motions even before she learns the English words for it. When she's scared at night, Barbara lies beside her for comfort. A life once busy with work and friends, golf and travel, has now shrunk to a singular focus: Teeba.

By fall, the long separation from her family has worn on Amal. Her cell phone brings the tragedies of her war-torn country into the Marlowe home daily. The strain is showing on them all.

So just after Thanksgiving, Amal returns to Iraq, leaving Teeba in the Marlowes' care. Tim takes her to the airport, and Teeba doesn't cry when she leaves. By then, "Mama Barbara" and "Papa Tim" have become simply "Mom" and "Dad."

In November 2007, Teeba takes the first step in a long and painstaking series of reconstructive surgeries.

Teeba's body gives Gosain nearly everything he needs. Using a process called tissue expansion, he slowly works to stretch uninjured tissue to allow it to replace the scars on her face. Being so young, Teeba's skin is perfect for such a procedure.

Gosain places balloons under the healthy skin on her neck and another in her back, with ports under the skin. Every week, the Marlowes take Teeba to Rainbow, where saline is injected into the balloon. The visits are quick, but the wait often has them there as long as two hours.

Over five months, the expanders grow one to two teaspoons at a time until they resemble large oval tumors along her jaw line and on her back. By April 2008, Teeba's skin is stretched enough to allow Gosain to perform her first skin graft.

As the Marlowes wait anxiously, Gosain removes the expander on the left side of Teeba's neck and pulls the stretched skin up to replace her scar tissue to midcheek. From the stretched skin on her back, Gosain creates a sheet for her forehead.

After nine hours in surgery, the girl they've come to consider like a daughter is swollen, her face a patchwork of new and scarred skin.

Barbara isn't prepared for this.

A new mother gets pregnancy and infancy to cultivate her love and attachment. Barbara has been clobbered by so much in such a short period, the feeling is overwhelming. Barbara manages to get herself out of the room and to the family lounge before breaking down. She leans against the wall, sinks to the floor and cries.

Oh my God, what did we do to her? Barbara thinks. What are we putting her through?

When she pulls herself together enough to return to Teeba's room, the little girl is just emerging from anesthesia, delirious, agitated, pulling at her clothes and IVs.

So Barbara crawls into the bed beside her and for the next several hours holds her tight.

This is just the beginning.

After allowing Teeba a few months to heal, Gosain repeats this process at least three more times — placement of tissue expanders, weekly appointments over several months to fill them and then surgery to graft the new skin to her face.

But it's never a certainty that Teeba will even be permitted to stay in the United States for this entire process. She entered the country in July 2007 on a B-2 visitor visa, granted for six months for medical purposes. In January, the Marlowes submitted the necessary paperwork and $300 fee to renew her visa, providing immigration officials with documentation about the status of her care. But another renewal is already on the horizon, and it keeps Barbara awake with worry at night.

It's Teeba's first winter in Cleveland, and she and Barbara are curled up side by side in Teeba's four-poster bed under her pink flowered bedspread. At bedtime they snuggle like this, nose to nose, and they talk.

Nighttime is when Teeba opens up.

"Mom, how come you never had any kids?"

The truth is more than a 6-year-old needs to hear. Barbara's first marriage wasn't one she wanted to bring a child into. It ended badly. By the time she married Tim in 1988, she was 34 but he was 45 with three older children. Then came a hysterectomy due to fibroids at age 38, and the matter was closed for good.

"Well, honey, God had other plans."

"If you had kids, would you have wanted a boy or a girl?"

"I always wanted a little girl."

What Teeba says next makes Barbara's heart leap to her throat. "My brother and your mother sent me to you to be your daughter." Both died in 2003.

Other nights she tells Barbara about life in Iraq. About men she calls "stealers" who come in the night to take children and hold them for ransom. About sleeping with her whole family in one bed each night for safety. About the time men arrived at her neighbor's house to deliver the decapitated head of her son in a bag.

"I know she's telling the truth because she tells the story the same way every time," Barbara says.

Then just as quickly, she's a little girl again. "So Mom, can we go swimming tomorrow?"

Teeba's school day is over, and it's time for Daisy Scouts. She dons her blue vest over her tan uniform jumper and oxford blouse and heads just a few classrooms down from her own for snacks and activities.

On this day, the scout leaders have matched up pairs of girls for a get-to-know-you activity. They quiz each other about their favorite colors, pants-versus-skirts preferences and pets then head to the hall to trace each other's bodies on large sheets of paper incorporating what they've learned about their partner.

As Teeba lies down, the long hair of her wig fans out around her head, and her partner traces around it. The result is a large blob instead of a head.

She is clearly not pleased.

Teeba is supposed to be taking a turn tracing her partner but instead remains fixated on making her own shape look normal. Her scout leader tries to encourage her to move on with the activity — "Look, see! She added your ears!" To which Teeba responds, "But I don't have any ears!"

On a cold, snowy afternoon in January 2010, a FedEx envelope is waiting for Barbara at the front door when she arrives home from picking up Teeba at school. She knows what's inside though she can't be sure whether it's good news.

She exhales deeply. "Well, here goes •"

The Marlowes have renewed Teeba's visitor visa four times. Now they're hoping for something a bit more permanent.

Each round of renewals dredges up emotions about Teeba's eventual return to Iraq. "At night, I start to think, Oh my God, what if she's not here? It's what if, what if, what if," says Barbara as her voice chokes with tears. "I pray and pray, Please, God, let her stay."

"We live in an unknown," Tim adds.

The Marlowes say Teeba's parents make it clear in their phone conversations that they want her to stay here as long as possible. "They tell us every time we call that it's dangerous; it's not safe for her to come back," Tim says.

Teeba's parents end each conversation with the Marlowes the same way: "God will bless you for what you've done."

After nearly three years in this country, Teeba speaks English completely free of an accent. She's gradually forgotten most of her Arabic, enough so that an interpreter must now come to the Marlowes' home to translate when she calls her parents.

Teeba is now in first grade at Andrews Osborne Academy in Willoughby. She lives the typical routines of an American first-grader: school and homework, swimming lessons on Tuesdays, Daisy Scouts on Wednesdays and sleepovers with her friends on the weekends.

"For good or for bad, she's now a little American girl," Tim says. "To send her back would be like sending your own daughter over to Iraq."

Barbara tears the strip from the FedEx envelope and pulls out a single sheet of perforated paper. There's no congratulatory letter inside, just a to-the-point form notifying Teeba that her immigration status has been changed to F-1 and instructing her to attach the perforated section to her visa.

This change means Teeba's immigration status is no longer tied to her medical treatment, and the Marlowes won't have to reapply every six months. As long as Teeba stays out of trouble and remains a full-time student at a Homeland Security-approved school, she can remain in the U.S. even into her college years.

At 55 and 67, Barbara and Tim never expected they'd be paying for private school and saving to send a child to college. They can't place Teeba on their medical insurance plan, so they pay out of pocket for all of her routine medical care. (Rainbow has made arrangements with the Marlowes to cover the costs of Teeba's surgeries.) They're revising their will to ensure Teeba's care can continue here if something happens to them.

These expenses have drained the couple's retirement account. Hoping to bolster Teeba's education fund, Barbara is collaborating with a People magazine writer to tell Teeba's story and recently signed with a literary agent in New York.

She hands the visa notification to Tim, but there's no time for a family moment. Teeba comes bolting through the kitchen chasing the family mutt, Becca, and friends have just arrived for a visit.

Although Barbara feels more relief from this approval than she's ever felt before, it's measured. She'll never get the certainty she hopes for, the news that Teeba is here to stay no matter what.

"That's what life is," Tim says. "It's uncertain, it's exciting, it's fun, it's sad. That's what we're doing with her, experiencing all of those things. We just focus on today."

On April 1, 8-year-old Teeba will head to Rainbow for her 12th surgery, which will place her fourth set of tissue expanders on her neck for the right side of her face and skin near her collarbone to graft onto her nose. She's been through it all before and knows what to expect, but it's getting tougher as she ages.

"With this one, she's more anxious," Barbara says. "She's older and more aware of her appearance. She's very cognizant of her looks, like the other girls."

"My belly's, like, flipping, and I have a headache," Teeba says, thinking about the surgery. "My heart beats so fast."

She may be nervous, but she's stoic, like the little girl in the picture.

"She never has complained about the surgeries. She knows that's what brought her here," Tim says.

Her next skin graft — and likely the last for her face — will come at the end of summer. Future procedures will reconstruct the missing cartilage and tissue of her ears, even out her eyebrows, and smooth the remaining scar tissue on her face and hands. But what Teeba wants most she likely won't ever have.

"The thing she wants more than anything, that she cries about daily, is having hair," Barbara says.

Most of her hair follicles were destroyed by her burns. There's not enough healthy skin to replace her hair through grafting. The Marlowes have ruled out a scalp transplant as too risky at this point.

Each graft brings the Marlowes closer to seeing the girl Teeba would be had she never traveled down that road in Iraq in September 2003. She's beautiful, and Barbara and Tim tell her so every day.

"She's worth every tear, every penny, every second," Barbara says. "She's worth everything we've lost and gained."

Comments:
Tuesday, March 30, 2010 6:46:40 PM by Reema Wahdan-Alaswad
Amazing and ispirational comment. I enjoy reading articles that bring life to the real world. I commend PCRFfor all their efforts and the author Keirn for this great story!
Wednesday, March 31, 2010 1:01:12 AM by Anonymous
Although this story is sweet, Teeba has a mother. I can't imagine how painful it would be to see my child call another woman "Mom." She is not the Marlowes' child.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 7:53:33 AM by Anonymous
Dear Anonymous,
Can you imagine what it would be like to have your whole family sleep in the same bed to prevent being kidnapped? I don't see this as a competition. Would it bother you to have someone else love your child enough to provide things you cannot? Mom is just a word . . . love is real.
Thursday, April 29, 2010 8:21:21 AM by Diane Steinert
What mother in a war-torn country wouldn't want this for her child? Teeba has something even better two mothers. May she thrive in the love of both families and the beauty of two cultures.

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