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A little hero who stole my heart leaves a major fear behind

  • Story Highlights
  • Youssif and his dad are inseparable; they hold hands wherever they go
  • The burned Iraqi boy says he's not afraid of fire anymore
  • His mom and dad tell their love story
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By Wayne Drash
CNN
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Editor's note: CNN.com's Wayne Drash leaves Los Angeles on Friday after spending nearly two weeks with Youssif and his family. Here, he describes what it's been like with the Iraqi family. CNN and CNN.com will continue to follow Youssif's journey in the months ahead as he faces more surgeries.

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Youssif streaked across the parking lot with excitement ahead of his surgery.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Youssif stood on the steps of the swimming pool. He cackled with laughter, kicking the water with his feet and splashing with his hands. He dipped his face in the water and blew bubbles.

It was his first time in a swimming pool, and the kid was a natural.

There were many firsts on this trip, all exhilarating in their own special ways. First time in America. First time to see the ocean. A trip on a Ferris wheel. A hug from his hero Spider-Man. Most importantly, the first time to get the treatment the boy needs to begin healing after the attack that left him disfigured.

I've most enjoyed watching the boy and his dad. The two are inseparable. They hold hands wherever they go. The dad beams a smile as big as a slice of watermelon. The boy just walks with his pop, stride for stride at his side.

As a father of a young boy, I have the deepest admiration for this Iraqi father -- a man I can't even name or show you a picture of for fear of his safety. This dad risked his life to travel more than 7,500 miles to find help for his boy.

If they were handing out trophies for Father of the Year, Youssif's old man would take the grand prize. Hands down.

"Anything for Youssif," he said repeatedly.

We laughed together often. A day after I smashed cars on the floor with Youssif, the dad said he tried to do the same, only Youssif snapped at him. Photo See how happy Youssif has become »

"You don't play like the American!" Youssif said.

The dad and I chuckled.

It was a much different scene Thursday as Youssif was wheeled away toward the operating room. He clung to his father, sobbing. Tears rolled down the father's face. Youssif shrieked.

They held hands as long as they could -- but then the two, once inseparable, had to separate. Youssif's screams bounced off the stale hospital walls. The dad wept in the hall. Nearby, Youssif's mother, Zainab, cried. Video Watch Youssif's parents comfort him »

There were other precious moments. One night, Youssif's parents told us their love story. They dated for three years before marrying in 2001. It was a courtship that almost never came to be. That's because Zainab thought her suitor was ugly -- at least at first.

"You know how they say love is blind," she giggled. "It is."

Zainab joked she might run away with some "hot" American kids. This prompted laughs from both of them.

"Keep talking like that, and I'm going back to Baghdad," her husband joked.

Informed that in America, it's often the wife who does the ordering, Zainab perked up. There was even more laughter.

It's hard to fully grasp all that has transpired in the month since Arwa Damon first reported Youssif's story for CNN and CNN.com. You -- the global Internet community -- have rallied around the boy, taken him under your wings and inspired action.

More than 13,000 donations have been made -- far surpassing the $300,000 estimated to meet Youssif's needs. His family has asked all excess donations go to other burn survivors, so that other children can get the help they need.

Just before heading to the hospital, Youssif sprinted around cars in the parking lot of his apartment building. He was excited he was beginning the first phase in getting his badly burned face fixed.

An Iranian woman recognized him. She began crying. She said Iran and Iraq were terrible enemies in the 1980s, but "I love that boy."

"I'm Muslim. They're Muslim. There's only love," she said, speaking in Farsi as she wiped away her tears.

A few days earlier, Youssif toured Universal Studios. He watched as mock movie sets simulated fires, flames shooting into the sky.

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"I'm not scared. I'm not even scared of fire."

Those were the words of the boy so savagely attacked by masked men and set on fire nine months ago. No amount of scars will ever hide the bravery of this boy. The boy with the giant heart who has inspired millions. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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