Misery Everywhere

Editor's Note: Ahmad Sharif is 8 years old and lives in Iraq. He lost his eyes and an arm when he was hit by a gun shell while walking home from school one day. Last Monday, March 13, Ahmad and his father Jabar visited New York's WBAI radio station to share their story on Wakeup Call. What follows is an edited version of that transcript.

Deepa Fernandes (host): We don't hear much about -- let alone see right here in the U.S. -- the effects that the Iraq war has had on innocent Iraqi civilians and Iraqis in general. Here in our studio this morning, we have two people whose lives have been dramatically impacted by the war in Iraq and the ensuing occupation. Ahmad Sharif, who a little while ago was dancing to our background music, is an 8-year-old Iraqi boy who, two and an half years ago, got hit by a tank shell, which led to the amputation of his right arm, the loss of his eyesight and scarring on his face.

His father Jabar Sharif is also here with us, and he is Ahmad's guardian for this trip to the U.S. We are also joined in our studio by Alyssa Montanti, who is the founder and chairwoman of Global Medical Relief Fund, which is the organization that has brought Ahmad and his father to the United States, where Ahmad will undergo medical treatment. We are also joined by our faithful WBAI translator, who is also a volunteer for the Global Medical Relief Fund, Hassham.

Hassham, I wonder if you can begin by just asking Ahmad how he feels this morning to be in here.

Hassham: He said fine, thank God.

DF: OK, and he has a big smile on his face as he said that. How and when did he come here to America?

Ahmad Sharif: Almost a month ago.

DF: OK. And what is the treatment he will be undergoing?

H: This is his second visit. He was here last April to get his prosthetic arm, because he lost his right arm. Also, he got prosthetic eyes, and we are trying to do plastic surgery to remove the scarring from his face.

DF: Ahmad, what happened to you two and a half years ago?

AS: I was coming back from school, walking beside my friend, going home, and all of a sudden a gun shell hit me, and I woke up in the hospital.

DF: Mr. Jabar, you are Ahmad's father. How did you learn of what had happened to your son?

Jabar Sharif: We were at home preparing to break the fast because this was Ramadan; it was about 5:30 p.m. local time in Baghdad, and in Sadr City also. All of a sudden we heard a big bang, which turned out to be the tank shell, and the neighbors knocked on the door and said Ahmad got hit, and we have to take him to the hospital.

DF: Obviously you are living in a time when these kinds of things are happening all the time. Is it something, as a parent, that you feared might happen to your son while doing a simple thing like walking home from school?

JS: Everyone actually had the fear for everyone else. All of the society of Iraq -- all the people of Iraq are afraid, every day, in going out. They don't know if they are going to come back.

DF: I want to ask you how you live with that fear, how you go on. I mean, your family has been directly affected. How do you go about your daily life?

JS: Of course, it broke our heart. All of us, we are all suffering -- you know, psychologically -- from that event. Add to that fact of the war that there is no work, nobody can get decent work. Income is not what it was. Even now we are almost out of money; we are having a hard time paying our rent in the place that we are staying in, so it's not easy.

DF: Ahmad, when you woke up, you couldn't see and you didn't have an arm. Tell us a little bit about what your life has been like since then. Are you able to go out and play with your friends? Is life still kind of the same? Or how different is it for you?

AS: There is not playing; it's done.

DF: Tell us what it feels like not being able to see.

AS: It makes me very, you know, almost desperate. I can't do anything without being able to see.

DF: Alyssa, with the Global Medical Relief Fund you have brought Ahmad here for treatment, and other children as well. Tell us about the program.

Alyssa Montanti: It started in 1997 after helping a Bosnian child who had lost two arms and leg, which was a result from writing to his ambassador at the U.N. asking for help. I helped that boy, and after helping him is when I started the foundation. I started with Bosnia, and to date it's evolved globally. We've helped more than 50 children, and quite frankly, aside from the tsunami and Bosnia and Africa, I am really focusing as much as I can on Iraq because of the great need. And Ahmad is just a product of what is happening there.

DF: Can you talk about the injuries that people are sustaining, and beyond the injuries, the medical treatment that's available for them there?

AM: Practically nothing. This is why I get so many requests. I get requests from the military; I get requests from the HOCK, the Humanitarian Operating Center in Kuwait. And there are so many children and civilians also in need, and there's lack of help for obvious reasons. NGOs don't want to go into Iraq, and there are just not enough organizations to help.

Ahmad's request came to me last year and I -- for the past 10 years, I have been helping with prosthetics, but when I saw this request and the situation, I needed to reach out, which I did. I found a wonderful doctor at Columbia Presbyterian: Dr. Gallan, who is Ahmad's doctor and has recruited an army of other doctors to care for Ahmad. But the Shriners Children's Hospital, who is my partner in the effort, and has been absolutely wonderful all these years -- they provide all the prosthetics. So Ahmad is also being fitted for a second arm while he is here.

DF: Are there any moves from American aid institutions, or even the military, to be able to provide help since they are the ones who are inflicting this kind of damage on people?

AM: Unfortunately, no. And this is the desperate, sad part. You know, all of the children that I have brought from Iraq so far -- eight in the past two years, and three of them have come back -- they come back each year for followups. Unfortunately, these children lose their homes, and that's it. They don't have a home, and there's nobody to really help them.

The situation for Ahmad is so horrible that I am trying to keep him here. Of all the children that have gone back, come back, gone back again and come back again, Ahmad is the exception -- so I am working with a firm that, hopefully, will be able to keep him here.

Because there is no school for the blind, the housing is bad, and to compound insult to injury, between last year and this year, Ahmad's family were in a car accident. They were fleeing for a safer place to live, and they had a car accident; his brother died, who was his guiding light. Ahmad also lost his spleen.

So Ahmad also has to be on antibiotics for the rest of his life, he has a scar that comes from his chest all the way down to his groin, he is missing his arm, he cannot see. So I am trying to enroll him in school for the blind, and hopefully, with the grace of God, keep him here.

DF: I wonder, Mr. Jabar Sharif, what you hope for your son … We just learned that you lost another one of your sons. Your family obviously has been so devastated by this Iraqi occupation and war; what are your hopes for Ahmad?

JS: I am asking God to help us, especially with the eyesight, because this is like someone has to be around him 24/7 in order to do anything. Also, of course, the eyesight is much more important.

DF: He seems like he has a lot of spirit, which just came out. As he walked into the studio, he was seated behind a microphone. He put the headphones on; he was listening, and then he started to smile and his face lit up. He is just a very, very beautiful boy. Is there anger, is there regret about the U.S. being in Iraq?

JS: They did what they went for, which is to take Saddam out. Thank you, and let us now live -- let us have our life.

DF: Do you feel, Ahmad, like you want to go back to Iraq? It sounds like a very scary place to be right now; would you rather stay here and get treatment in the hospital and live in America?

AS: No, I want to stay here.

DF: OK. Alyssa, I mean obviously it's very tough. It's heartbreaking to see a little boy who can't see us right now.

AM: It's heartbreaking, it's heart-wrenching, but what's really sad is that a lot of people don't get it. Unfortunately, you know, there are wonderful people out there -- loving -- but then there are the people that don't see that all children are equal.

Unfortunately, I am a small charity making a tremendous impact, and I work ten times as hard just to raise funds to help these children.

DF: Hassham, you have been volunteering with the Global Medical Relief Fund, and you have been with the families. I wonder if you can just give us a bit of an overall sense of what we don't know here in America about the effects that this war is having.

H: If you take a look at this kid, you will realize what war is anywhere in the world. Who really suffers is the civilians, lots of civilians, like Ahmad. Since last April, when I met him the first time -- that's when I kind of fell in love with Alyssa and Ahmad and the whole thing. So I am trying to do whatever I can to help them.

The thing is, there was another girl who was 6 years old. She got hit, their house got hit by a rocket from an American fighter jet in the very beginning of the war. On March 30th of 2003, she lost her leg, she lost her brother, she lost her aunt and had several injuries in the family, plus losing the house. Ahmad lost his arm, his eyesight, scarring in his face, and now although it is not related to the war, in a car accident he lost his brother, and also they try to flee the area of Sadr City in Baghdad to live somewhere else, because of the trouble that's happening there. So, I mean, I'm speechless …

DF: Alyssa?

AM: Yeah, if I may just say: I have been to Iraq a few times and the situation pales in comparison to what the news conveys. You know that things are getting worse. The hospitals are dreadful, and the children that are getting injured -- you don't see any of this, any.

DF: I wonder, Mr. Jabar, when you are here in America are you surprised at how little people know about your reality in Iraq?

JS: There is a lot of explosions, you know, there is a lot of misery everywhere, and everyday that is not transferred through the media to the people here in America and elsewhere.

DF: And finally, Ahmad, do you have something you would like to tell all the people who are listening right now?

AS: Thank you for having us here in America. Thanks to Alyssa for helping me, and I hope to, you know, get my eyesight back.

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