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Defiant Youssif scales new heights

  • Story Highlights
  • Disfigured Iraqi boy meets other young burn victims at sports camp
  • Youssif's face now looks worse, but doctors say it's all part of healing process
  • Family enjoying first Thanksgiving, grateful to American helpers
  • CNN readers and viewers sent donations to bring Youssif to U.S. for treatment
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From Arwa Damon and Atia Abawi
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. 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 attempts a climbing wall, his helmet carefully strapped around his wounds.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Burned Iraqi boy Youssif shows no fear as he stares up at the rock-climbing wall. "I can do it fast and then I am going to stand on top."

It's a declaration of defiance and strength from the 5-year-old who will need plenty of both as he continues his long recovery from horrific burns suffered when masked men set him on fire.

In the eight weeks since his last surgery, the doctors' predictions are coming true and Youssif's face actually looks worse even as it gets better.

The skin graft on his nose is still healing and balloons placed under the skin of his right cheek and on his neck are almost fully inflated. Extra skin will grow over these tissue expanders and will then be stretched over Youssif's scars.

It's a noticeable change, but one that doesn't seem to be bothering Youssif as he waves frantically at his parents, a huge climbing helmet perched on his head and held on by straps fitted around his swollen skin. Video Watch a giggling Youssif run, roll and ride at sports camp »

His emotional transformation is continuing along with the physical changes and Youssif's parents say he is now a more cheerful child.

"It makes me happier than he is, in all honestly, when I see him like this," says Youssif's father, who doesn't want his identity disclosed.

As he speaks, Youssif is shrieking with laughter, darting around the circle playing his new favorite game -- "Duck, duck, goose" -- with new friends at the Canyon Creek Sports Camp, about an hour north of Los Angeles, California.

It's a day of fun and learning for burn survivors and their families. Along with Youssif are 7-year-old Walter, burned with his parents in a car accident, and Dami, 4, burned when a generator accidentally exploded back home in Africa.

"This is a day away from the public. It is a day of fun, but we are also going to do some activities that are a little more challenging, confidence building," says Keely Quinn, program director with the Children's Burn Foundation. The foundation, which worked nationally and internationally, agreed to sponsor Youssif's treatment after CNN readers and viewers learned of the boy's plight and donated thousands of dollars to bring him from Baghdad to the United States for help.

Fun and games aside, the day at the camp is also meant to help the children and their families cope with the trauma they've gone through.

"They [the children] have learned that the world isn't a safe place anymore," Quinn says.

At the camp, the families get a chance to hear from long-time survivors like Bonnie Weatherbee, 37, who was burned at the age of 18 months.

"We are unique, we are special, we are not freaks, we are not contagious," she tells the group.

Everyone here has been confronted with hostility or ignorance. Photo See photos of how Youssif's face is changing »

"How do you just deal with people who see the child and go hysteric?" asks Dami's mother, Shade, as she waves her arms to mimic a woman's nearly frantic reaction to her son.

Youssif was recently going down a slide when nearby children burst into tears at the sight of him, his dad says. "Youssif came out and his face had gone pale and he said 'Daddy, they were crying, they were scared of me.' "

Weatherbee says families can choose how to react, but it's important to empower the children so they know how to cope with the questions and the stares as well.

"Most of the public is interested in the story out of concern, they want to know that your child is OK," Weatherbee tells the families.

At the camp, parents and children color in paper figures representing themselves to go in cardboard homes in an activity designed to help them find "safe places" again.

Clutching a figure elaborately splashed in colors and decorated with feathers, Youssif shrieks, "This is mommy," before dissolving into laughter.

He is still learning about new things to play with that he never had in Baghdad -- like glitter, and he soon discovers it's much more fun to coat real people rather than their paper counterparts with the sparkly stuff.

Youssif's dad even jokes about it when the families "visit" each other's cardboard homes: "We'd like to apologize since the house is a mess and we haven't had time to clean up."

All laughter aside, this is still a difficult journey for the young family, struggling to adapt to a country so different from Iraq and the stress of their son's surgery. Video Watch how the family makes it through the agonizing ordeal of Youssif's first surgery »

"It's hard to be a foreigner," Youssif's father says. "God willing things will go well. The doctor said the next surgery is going to be harder and that we need to be ready for that."

Youssif's mother, Zainab, dissolves into tears just thinking about Iraq, saying homesickness is just beginning to set in.

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But the mood lightens when talk turns to Thanksgiving. They don't know much about this U.S. holiday, but they say they are lucky to be here.

"I thank the Americans so much," Zainab says. "They really helped my son in ways no one else did." Then she adds that she prays that other children in Iraq will be as fortunate as getting help as little Youssif. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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