A chance to see the world in a whole different light

A U.S. bomb cost an Iraqi teen his sight in one eye, but doctors help him find much to like in America.

July 27, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

The doctor touched the contact lens to the boy's scarred cornea. Ayad blinked hard, then looked up with two brown eyes.

The doctor smiled. The boy's father blessed her in Arabic, and "even her parents." Behind them, the man who worked so long for this quietly wept.

"Ayad, Ayad, you look great," they told the boy.

The lens was not the cure they had hoped for. The 13-year-old Iraqi was still half blind; beneath the hand-painted piece of plastic, the iris of his eye remained milky white - the kind of eye that in this country is seen mostly in the faces of the very, very old.

Not even the top specialists at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute could undo the bomb's damage.

Although Ayad al-Sirowiy never underwent the corrective eye surgery he came to the United States hoping for, the two weeks he spent here - in New York City, Washington, but mostly in Baltimore - changed the way he saw the world. Before leaving on a flight back to the Middle East today, he toured the country that had dropped explosives on his family's fields. With his one good eye, he peered into the faces of ordinary Americans, inspected their fortresses and fast-food joints.

He was transfixed.

The last sight Ayad saw with two healthy eyes was of his family's seven cows, grazing. It was spring 2003 in the date-farming village of Kifil, about two hours south of Baghdad, close to Najaf, a stronghold for Saddam Hussein loyalists. The United States had begun military operations in Iraq about a month earlier, and the bombs were falling fast - many of them cluster bombs, which break apart into smaller explosives. One piece lay dormant in Ayad's pasture, until one of his cows stepped on it.

All the boy remembers of the explosion is the sound: "Boom."

He woke up in a Baghdad hospital two weeks later. His mother fainted when she saw him. Ayad called for a mirror.

He saw a hugely swollen face sprayed with tiny bits of black shrapnel, as if a pen had exploded underneath his skin. Bomb fragments had also penetrated his right eye, which was fire-red, although he could still see.

Ayad cried, and cursed America.

In the months that followed, Ayad's stained skin - embedded with the bomb's plastic casing - began to heal itself a little, but his eye grew worse. Cloudiness crept over the surface. In addition to the scarf that hid his charred-looking face, he wore sunglasses everywhere, even to bed. He quit school because his classmates taunted him.

Frequently, Ayad and his father rode the bus to Baghdad, looking for medical assistance or money from the U.S. military, but were usually turned away. They wrote letters, sometimes to the U.S. civilian administrator at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, and sometimes to America in general.

"Please, help me," Ayad wrote, "because this disease will blind me."

Slowly, it did.

It was the sight of him, a picture in The New York Times in March 2004, that made the difference. The image of Ayad, squinting and miserable, stopped Joe Tom Easley cold over his coffee in Miami Beach.

"It was the picture," said Easley, a traveling law lecturer and gay rights activist. "An Iraqi boy with black on his face, his eye scarred over with white. And he had this sad expression. I looked at him and thought, `A horrible thing has happened.'"

He also thought: "I can help this boy."

Prepared to sponsor Ayad's journey to the United States, Easley showed the photo to specialists at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and elsewhere; all volunteered their time.

Easley and his spouse, retired journalist Peter Freiberg, tracked down Ayad's family in Iraq. It took 16 months, but on a Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago, Ayad and his father finally walked off a plane at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

What 6-foot-4-inch Easley saw first was not the scars, but how small the boy was - about the size of an American 9-year-old.

Suddenly, Easley wanted to show this child all the beautiful parts of his country.

"The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite," Easley said. "To show him the ocean. To take him to New Orleans. You'd just like to take the kid and show him everything."

Doctors' appointments instead tethered him mostly to Baltimore, where he stayed for free at the Tremont Park Hotel on Pleasant Street.

Still, he saw a lot.

He saw Manhattan miniaturized from the top of the Empire State Building. He saw the neon haze over Times Square. He saw, and devoured, his first hamburgers, which he stacked up like poker chips.

He saw the sharks at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, but stared longest at the tropical fish, bright dashes in the dark.

He saw his father, a poor farmer, sip Sprite at the table of a prominent Maryland imam, and watched him pray on the man's wall-to-wall carpet. He saw tube tops, harbor fog and escalators.

He saw all this from beneath the brim of a new Orioles cap.

He saw a Japanese beetle, which he did not like.

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