Girl crosses war-torn land to fufill dream of new legs

July 29, 2007 10:34 pm Published by

Salee Allawe dreams of running with her friends, of walking to her mother with a bouquet of flowers, of finally getting out of her wheelchair.

And with the help of the Upstate, her dream is about to come true.

The 9-year-old Iraqi girl lost both legs below the knee in an airstrike last fall. She arrived in Greenville, where she is undergoing medical treatment at Shriners Hospital for Children, three weeks ago after a two-month journey fraught with danger and uncertainty.

A little shy, but quick to smile, Salee’s dark eyes sparkle when she thinks about new legs.

“She’s happy and excited,” her interpreter says. “She knows it’s a step toward getting much better.”

Salee and her family were living in Bagdhad when Shiite militia forced them from their home last November, her father, Hussein Allawe, says through interpreter Ghada Saif of Simpsonville.

The Allawes, who are Sunni, had planned to go to Fallujah, but the road was blocked. Instead, they fled to Haswa, a central Iraqi town between Baghdad and Fallujah, to stay with relatives.

A day later, Nov. 7, Allawe was sipping afternoon tea with his mother and brothers on the patio when planes rumbled overhead. Far from unusual in the war-torn country, the aircraft drew only a passing glance as the family chatted. And in the adjacent courtyard, Salee could be heard giggling as she played with her brothers, sister and cousin.

In an instant, that laughter turned to screams. An errant U.S. missile aimed at vehicles carrying enemy militia 4 kilometers away exploded in their midst, Saif says, killing Allawe’s eldest son, Akram, 15, and splattering Allawe’s mother and brother with blood.

Amid the chaos as the stricken family frantically searched for the boy’s body parts — his head was never found — a neighbor saw the screaming Salee had lost both her legs in the blast.

“He tried to pick her up and the neighbor told him to be careful because her legs were just gone,” Saif says. “It was like just bones there.”

Witnessing the horror, Salee’s mother collapsed. Allawe wrapped the bleeding Salee in a blanket and drove the 20 minutes to the nearest clinic. But because they didn’t have the necessary supplies or expertise, they could only bandage her and send her, her sister, who was also injured, and her father to a hospital in Fallujah.

“When they got to Fallujah, it was around 7 p.m., and it was curfew,” Saif says. “They needed blood for Salee, but they had used all the blood in the hospital for another two patients at the same time.”

Overhearing the commotion, a man in the waiting room began to call around the city for help. And in defiance of the curfew, friends raced through the streets, emergency lights flashing, to donate 18 bottles of blood so doctors could perform surgery on Salee.

Another operation was needed the next morning to remove even more of one leg after infection set in because the hospital was short of antibiotics, Allawe says through Saif.

When Salee was well enough to leave the hospital, the family found an abandoned, unheated building in Fallujah to live in. That’s when Cole Miller heard their story. The founding director of No More Victims, Miller was linking injured Iraqi children with medical care in the United States.

“I was working to bring a little boy named Omar, who was very badly burned, over when the regional coordinator told me about a little girl who lost both legs,” he says. “Ann Cothran had sent me an e-mail back in 2005 and said they wanted to help.”

Along with friends Selena Frank and Lisa Hall, Cothran, of Williamston, had started the Upstate Coalition of Compassion as a way to help a war-injured child.

“All we knew was she needed two prostheses,” Cothran says. “We contacted Cole, and he found Salee’s medical records and sent them to us. Then we went to Shriners, and they said they could help. At that point, we started trying to bring Salee to this area.”

By holding car washes, bake sales and other fundraisers around the community, the group amassed some $12,000 to help get Salee to Greenville.

The funds cover airfare, hotel and other expenses for the children and their parents, Miller says. They also help the family that must stay behind.

Salee is the sixth child the group has brought to the United States. And three of the children returned to Iraq with enough money to rebuild homes that had been destroyed, he says.

Miller began working on Salee’s trip to the U.S. in March.

“Getting out of Iraq is expensive. And it’s dangerous,” he says. “People don’t like to drive in a war zone, and I can’t expect people on the verge of starvation in Fallujah to help me for nothing.”

In May, Salee and her father left Iraq for Damascus. Conditions in Fallujah were so volatile, they feared that if they got approval for the trip, they wouldn’t be able to get out of Iraq. About a month later, they were in Amman, Jordan. Miller joined them June 7 to arrange for visas, schedule the necessary interviews, make travel plans and handle customs procedures.

“There’s always a concern something’s going to happen. There’s a lot of stress. And there are always delays,” he says. “There is a severe refugee crisis in the neighboring countries. So making the arrangements to ensure they didn’t have problems crossing into Jordan was one delay. Mostly, it’s just nervous waiting.”

During their time in Amman, Miller grew increasingly impressed with the little girl. Just a few months after losing her legs, she had accepted her lot and was getting around on her hands, even trying to play soccer in the living room of the apartment the group rented as temporary housing for families like hers.

“I see how cheerful she is, and I feel ashamed of myself because I let little things get under my skin,” he says.

As the weeks wore on, Allawe learned some basic computer skills. And in between living room soccer matches, Salee learned how to use a digital camera, given to her by a friend named Noor, and studied a bit of English.

On July 6, with all the paperwork finally in order, Allawe, Salee and Miller boarded a plane for New York, then continued on to Greenville, arriving July 8. Salee says the trip was tiring and she’s glad to be in Greenville. They’ll be here for a few months, staying at Ronald McDonald House, as she receives medical care.

“The prognosis is really good that she’ll be up and running around,” says Miller. “When she returns home, she wants to walk up to her mother and hand her flowers, to play with her friends. And I think that’s going to happen.”

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This post was written by Cole Miller

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