A healing visit to L.A. for a boy from Gaza
Abdullah Alathamna was 7 years old when Israeli shells crashed into his family’s home in the Gaza Strip, jolting him from sleep. In the blitz of explosions, Abdullah lost his mother, two sisters and his right foot.
Three and a half years later, he found himself in a hospital room in Los Angeles.
He was dazed by the morphine. The bones in his right shin ached. The nurse asked questions in a language he didn’t understand.
Abdullah plunged into a flashback, thrashing and shrieking and calling for his mother.
A woman reached out and cupped his face in her hands. She cooed in Arabic, calling him hayati -- my life -- and habibi -- my love.
The woman, Lily Karam, 58, didn’t know the boy before he arrived in California a month ago to undergo bone surgery. A Palestinian American who came to the U.S. in 1975, she is one of more than a dozen people who have joined to care for Abdullah during his stay here.
Abdullah traveled with the help of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a nonprofit organization that each year pays for about 20 child victims of violence in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq to come to America for medical treatment. His father, who lives in Gaza with his new wife, could not come.
During the week Abdullah spent at the hospital, volunteers sat with him in round-the-clock shifts. They translated for hospital staff -- most of whom assumed that, with his brown hair and brown eyes, he spoke Spanish -- and brought him video games and Palestinian sweets.
There was the Ethiopian college student, the Palestinian businessman -- so many strangers, Abdullah has forgotten all of their names. They are not his family. But they are kind to him and they speak Arabic, so Abdullah trusts them.
Last Friday, one of the volunteers, Lulu Emery, helped the boy out of Shriners Hospital for Children and into her car. She asked hospital staff for a separate gurney to carry all the gifts he had been given.
“It looks like they bought the whole store,” he said of the gifts.
Abdullah was in good spirits. As they drove south, he blinked at palm trees and office parks and pulled his Boston Red Sox cap -- a gift from his host father here -- low over his eyes. Emery, 69, reached over and playfully tipped it back up.
This is not Abdullah’s first time in the United States. The nonprofit paid for him to travel to Oakland in 2007 and to Dubai in 2009, both times to be fitted for an artificial leg. Neither prosthesis worked.
After the shelling in November 2006, doctors in Egypt tried to amputate beneath his right shin. But his fibula and tibia bones kept growing, pushing painfully against the skin that had grown around his stump. The recent surgery at Shriner’s corrected that, doctors say. As soon as the scars heal, Abdullah will be fitted for another leg.
Until then, he is recuperating with his host family in Yorba Linda. On Friday, when Emery and Abdullah arrived at the family’s home, a large, ranch-style house at the top of a private drive, his host father ran out to greet them.
George Abuhamad, 50, bent down to hug the heavyset boy. He wrapped his arms around Abdullah’s crutches and kissed him on both cheeks.
When they met three weeks ago, the first thing Abdullah asked was for Abuhamad to log on to a computer. “Google my name,” the boy said.
Abuhamad found a host of websites and articles about the Israeli shelling that led Abdullah here.
Eighteen civilians -- most of them members of Abdullah’s family -- died during the early morning siege of the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized for the incident. The soldiers had been aiming at Palestinian militants who were launching rockets across the border into Israel from a nearby field, he said, but they missed their target.
Hamas leaders used the incident to call for a renewal of suicide attacks against Israel. They called Abdullah and the other survivors heroes, and the dead martyrs.
Abdullah doesn’t like to talk about the incident. When he does, he speaks of his mother and sisters as martyrs too. “Now they are birds in paradise,” he said.
Before he left Gaza, he folded up pictures of his mother and sisters and tucked them in his luggage. When his host mother discovered them last week while doing laundry, she unfolded them and taped them to the mirror in her son Sami’s bedroom, where Abdullah is staying.
The room is colorful, with posters of baseball players on the wall and a turtle tank in the corner. Abdullah’s photos set a different tone.
The boy’s presence in the house has been sobering, Abuhamad said. On a recent night, while his 4-year-old daughter, Cierra, got ready for bed, she included Abdullah in her prayers.
“She said, ‘God, I pray for Abdullah and that he gets his toes back,’ ” Abuhamad said. Abdullah, a Muslim, has gone to services at a local mosque several times.
Although Abuhamad is a Palestinian who grew up in Syria, his wife and four children have never been to the Middle East. The gulf separating their experiences in the United States and Abdullah’s in Gaza can seem overwhelming, Abuhamad acknowledged.
Abdullah likes video games and the Internet, and he groans when his teacher -- a tutor provided by the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District -- comes to give him lessons.
In some ways, the boy is “just your typical 11-year-old kid,” Abuhamad said. In other ways, he is not. Most 11-year-olds don’t flinch when they hear helicopters.
On one of Abdullah’s first nights in Yorba Linda, the family took him to a barbecue with Sami’s baseball team. After everyone ate, when most of the boys went to play basketball, Abuhamad found Abdullah in the corner, crying because he wasn’t able to participate.
The family members have done their best to make Abdullah feel like he’s one of them.
Joan Abuhamad, 52, framed a portrait of Abdullah and put it next to the school photos of her children that she keeps in the foyer. She bought him mango juice, his favorite, and devoted several shelves in Sami’s room to Abdullah’s books.
But it hasn’t been easy to win the boy over.
After she cooked him a traditional Palestinian tomato stew for his homecoming, he asked her to make chicken nuggets instead. When she asked him to stretch out his amputated leg to exercise it instead of keeping it hooked over the crook of his arm, he ignored her.
Joan Abuhamad does not speak Arabic. The only phrase she knows is, “I love you.”
She worries about Abdullah’s future in Gaza, where the violence continues. On Friday, two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian militants were killed in a gun battle near the territory’s border. Work there is scarce and disabled people are at an added disadvantage.
“We’d keep him if we could,” she said. But the boy has no interest in staying in America, her husband said.
“That would be betrayal,” Abuhamad said. In a few months, if his leg heals properly, Abdullah will go home.
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