Yousuf Hussein is only 14 years old, but the childhood journey that brought him from Iraq to the U.S. 10 years ago has made him mature beyond his years, with American pride that is unmatched by most teenagers.
He still wears the scars of a brutal attack he suffered at the age of five outside his Baghdad home. But today, those scars remind him less of the pain of the attack and more of the kindness he has received from the Americans that saved him and his family, and moved them to Los Angeles.
When Yousuf was barely five years old, he was targeted by terrorists who doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. His father has stayed hidden since that attack, which he said was motivated by his work with the Iraqi government.
“Sometimes when they can’t get you, they come after your family,” said Yousuf’s father.
Medical options in Iraq were limited, and the family was living in fear of being targeted again.
“First I was thinking that I am going to lose him and I decided to do whatever I could to get him out and to get some help," Yousuf's father said.
After Yousuf's father shared his story with a CNN reporter in Iraq, hoping someone might help them, his prayers were answered with a call from the Children’s Burn Foundation. The nonprofit not only offered to pay for Yousuf’s facial surgeries, but went above and beyond by relocating his immediate family and providing support while they sought asylum.
Yousuf has had 21 surgeries so far, and is preparing for his 22nd. All of the operations were donated and have been performed by the Grossman Burn Center with remarkable results, not only improving Yousuf's ability to function and use his mouth, but also helping to restore the look of his face.
Yousuf shares his story today as a 14-year-old inspired to pay it forward. He said when he grows up he’d like to be a doctor so he can help others. He’s also an athlete who enjoys soccer and swimming and has even tried surfing.
His positive experience growing up as a California kid has changed his perspective of the attack.
“Don’t look at it as a bad thing, think of it as a good thing,” said Yousuf. “ If I didn’t get burned then I wouldn’t be in America. And I have friends now. I like people to see that just because something happened to you doesn’t mean you can’t be strong.”
When Yousuf first arrived in the U.S., most of his friends were made at special camps for burn victims created by the nonprofit Children’s Burn Center with the support of other nonprofits like the Grossman Burn Foundation. The surgeries and interaction helped him regain his confidence.
He now lives a modest life in Los Angeles with his mother, father, brother and sister. They earned their citizenship and consider themselves proud Americans, forever grateful for the help they received here and always looking for opportunities to volunteer to help others.
Yousuf says he wants people to hear his story so they know he’s no longer the victim the world saw on CNN 10 years ago. And he’s not a refugee. His scars are a sign of the journey that brought him to this country, and a daily reminder of the kindness that defines what it means to him, to be an American.
THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO HELP YOUSUF OR OTHERS LIKE HIM
Yousuf's remarkable recovery was made possible not only by the Children's Burn Foundation, but by the help of the Grossman Burn Center and the Grossman Burn Foundation and all the volunteers who gave their time and money. They continue to do remarkable work not only for Yousuf but for other young burn victims internationally and locally.
The CNN reporter who initially covered Yousuf's story in Iraq, Arwa Damon, was so moved by his recovery that she started her own foundation called, INARA. Through that nonprofit she works to help other young victims of war recover from their injuries. The organization is focused on helping children in Syria right now.
Damon was recently honored, with Yousuf by her side, by World of Children, which also takes donations to help children around the world.
Finally, Yousuf's father has put out a request of his own. He is thankful every day for the help his family has received in its move to the U.S. and for Yousuf's surgeries, but he struggles to find regular work. Their family of five lives in a two-bedroom apartment and Yousuf shares his bedroom with his two younger siblings. He's seeking some help so they can upgrade to a three-bedroom apartment, so Yousuf can have more privacy as a teenager. He has set up a GoFundMe page which is taking donations.
Circa Cares is always looking for inspiring stories that might motivate more people toward awareness or to give back directly. Have a story idea? Feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.