10 01 2016
  10:16 am  
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Muhammed Hussein is blind, 3 years old and speaks no English, but the moment he sat in his foster mother's lap in an examination chair at a Seattle clinic, he seemed to know the bullet wound on his face was going to be probed.

After months in hospitals in his native Iraq and later Iran, Muhammed has come to dread visits to the doctor.

The touch of rubber gloves, cold metal on his skin or the pressure of fingers on his face triggers a reminder of the day 13 months ago when he was shot from close range with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Muhammed's odyssey from 2-year-old boy living in a war-ravaged country has led him to Seattle's Swedish Medical Center. He was brought here by Healing the Children, a Spokane-based organization that connects children who need medical care unavailable in their native countries with U.S. physicians, hospitals and foster parents who volunteer their services.

Back home in Iraq, his family prays daily for him and hopes his vision will be restored in one eye and that the misshapen flesh on his face can be transformed into the nose, forehead and cheeks of a little boy.

Yet doctors here are hesitant to promise much. The months that have passed since the shooting and some of the early medical procedures have worsened the boy's condition.

"My guess is he's not seeing very much," Seattle eye surgeon Thomas Gillette said, shining a bright light into Muhammed's filmy eye.

"We do have some hurdles," fellow physician David Epley said.

Muhammed's story has become common in Iraq, where children have increasingly become victims of violence. According to UNICEF, militants have widened their targets to include schools, often kidnapping, maiming and killing children.

Muhammed and his grandmother arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in mid-May. Julie Robinett Smith stepped in to be his foster mother during the coming months. Muhammed lives with Smith, her husband, Randy, and their daughters, Erika, 20, and Alexa, 18, in their home in Snohomish, about 25 miles north of Seattle.

The Smiths heard about Healing the Children a year ago and offered to host a child needing temporary foster care. When the organization contacted them about Muhammed, Randy Smith, 46, a Boeing systems analyst, said he was hesitant, but now he calls Muhammed's presence a blessing.

For Julie Smith, 47, an interior decorator, "He's made me see what's beautiful differently. I don't really notice the scars on his face anymore. His personality shines through."

No one knows just how long Muhammed will be here or how many surgeries he will need. Little was known about his condition before Muhammed arrived in Seattle, and doctors are finding more damage than they initially expected.

Muhammed's neurological functions remain normal, but his face and sinuses are so damaged he has sleep apnea, which means he stops breathing momentarily in his sleep.

Doctors in Iraq removed his right eye, which was shattered. His left eye has been traumatized and will, at a minimum, need a cornea transplant, but even then doctors say he is unlikely to have much vision.

Muhammed and five other family members, including his mother and sister, were driving home from visiting a relative when Sunni militants stopped his uncle's SUV northeast of Baghdad.

One by one, the unarmed occupants of the vehicle were shot as Muhammed, then 2, and his 4-year-old sister watched. Then Muhammed was shot, the bullet carving a deep path across his face.

One of his uncles died and four others, including his mother, suffered life-threatening injuries. Only his sister escaped unscathed. A year later, his mother is still in the hospital; his father stays at her bedside.

After the shooting, the ambulances bearing Muhammed and his family were turned away at the nearest hospital because militants had threatened the staff.

A 27-year-old uncle, Adil Joda, later took his nephew to neighboring Iran and stayed with him for 10 weeks. When doctors there said there was no hope of correcting Muhammed's blindness, Joda turned to the Internet and found Healing the Children and Swedish Medical Center.

"I heard the desperation and the pain in Adil's voice, my heart went out to him and his family," said Rebecca Snyders, executive director of Healing the Children's Western Washington and Oregon Chapter. "Then I saw the photos. I knew we had to do whatever we could to help this child."

Muhammed's eye has shrunk from the trauma, which doctors say is not a favorable sign.

"Back home he's ruined if he can't see," said Raffi Ohanian, an Iraq-born hospital interpreter.

In Iraq, the blind are outcasts, never sent to school or trained for jobs. They often beg on the streets.

Consultations are planned. Scans will be reviewed. Meanwhile, on both sides of the world in different cultures, languages and religions, the people who love Muhammed pray and wait.

— The Associated Press

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