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Youssif and family arrive in U.S.: 'Am I in heaven?'

  • Story Highlights
  • Iraqi boy who was set on fire by masked men arrives for treatment
  • 12,000 CNN readers contributed to fund to help 5-year-old Youssif
  • Boy's mom asks, "Am I in heaven?"
  • Youssif is to meet with surgeon later Wednesday
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Arwa Damon and Wayne Drash
CNN
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Editor's note: CNN agreed not to use the full names of the family members in this article due to concern for their safety.

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Youssif, now in an apartment in Los Angeles, will need months of treatment.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Youssif, the 5-year-old Iraqi boy who was savagely burned by masked men, arrived in the United States late Tuesday with his family -- the first step toward his lengthy rehabilitation.

For a family whose lives were tortured by the random and brutal violence of Iraq, the sheer magnitude of stepping onto American soil was surreal. His parents were rendered speechless. Quite simply they grinned from ear to ear. They didn't need to speak. The joy on their faces was palpable.

They had traveled more than 7,500 miles to get help for their son, from war-torn central Baghdad to coastal Los Angeles. It marked the first time the family had ever left their homeland, let alone flown on a plane.

"Oh my God, it's so green. Am I in heaven?" Youssif's mother, Zainab, said after arriving in Chicago before the family flew on to Los Angeles where Youssif will be treated.

"I feel like I'm in a dream," said his father, whom CNN has agreed not to name. "Someone needs to pinch me." Video Watch Youssif's doctor's prognosis for the burned boy »

The family left Amman, Jordan, early Tuesday en route to the United States. The night before they departed, Youssif didn't sleep a wink. He woke the family up extra early, shouting, "Let's go! Let's go!"

Youssif, his parents and his infant sister, Ayaa, finished their 24-hour journey in Los Angeles around 11 p.m. PT Tuesday. They were greeted by members of the Children's Burn Foundation, the nonprofit organization that paid for the family's travel and is covering all of Youssif's medical bills.

Youssif playfully fought with his father over the luggage cart in Los Angeles International Airport. "I want to push it. I want to push it," he said gleefully.

The family was then whisked away to the two-bedroom, two-bath apartment where they will be staying during Youssif's treatment. It's a stark contrast to their humble one-room home in a rundown central Baghdad neighborhood rife with violence.

There was a television, toys everywhere, and a balcony. A crib sat in the kids' bedroom and the kitchen even had a high-chair so that Youssif's sister would be able to eat with them at the table. For the first time in a long time, the family laughed out of pure joy. Photo See Youssif play with his new toys »

When Youssif walked into the new home, he glanced at the plush wall-to-wall carpet and ordered everyone to take their shoes off. Don't get it dirty, he said. His mother opened a door in the master bedroom and marveled at the walk-in closet. "Is this a bedroom? It can't be a closet," she said.

Standing on the apartment's balcony, Youssif's father turned to Barbara Friedman, executive director of the Children's Burn Foundation.

"You see America on television, but you never imagine or dream that you will ever be here." He paused, tears in his eyes.

"It's more than paradise."

This is the same father who walked the streets of Baghdad seeking help for his boy. He went to the Health Ministry and even wrote letters to the Iraqi parliament and the prime minister's office for help. No one would listen.

Desperate, he turned to CNN. "Look at what these monsters did to my boy," he said. Watch how Youssif was transformed from a smiling boy to a disfigured victim Video

CNN and CNN.com first reported his story on August 22 after the family risked their lives to tell his story: On January 15, masked men grabbed Youssif outside his home, doused him with gas and set him on fire.

The story prompted an outpouring of support to get help for Youssif. More than 12,000 CNN.com users have contributed to a fund set up by the Children's Burn Foundation.

In recent weeks, the foundation worked feverishly with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to secure the necessary paperwork for the family's travel to the United States -- something that typically takes months, if not years, to do.

Youssif and his family are expected to be in the United States for six months to a year while he undergoes multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation.

They are to meet with Dr. Peter Grossman, the plastic surgeon who will perform the operations, Wednesday afternoon. Grossman works for the nearby Grossman Burn Center and is donating his services to Youssif's cause.

On this day, the family was simply ecstatic to have finally made it here. They arrived on September 11 -- the date the United States will always remember as a day of unspeakable horror.

But for this family, 9/11 will always mean something much different: Hope and a better future for their son -- and a newfound love for America.

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"This is a moment that will stay with us forever," Youssif's dad said.

Friedman smiled broadly and said, "For us too." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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