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Youssif smiles again

  • Story Highlights
  • Youssif can smile again after his most important surgery
  • His lower lip sags now, resulting in drooling; doctor says that's fixable
  • Parents struggle with realization their boy will never be the same
  • Mom: "Sometimes when he sleeps I just look at him and cry"
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By Arwa Damon
CNN
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Youssif squats at the edge of the lake at Balboa Park near Los Angeles, tentatively holding out bread for the ducks, his large dark eyes widening in delight and fear as it's snatched from his hands.

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Youssif is able to smile again. He will still undergo more surgeries to correct his lower lip and tweak other scars.

"Oooo! Look, there's a white one," the 5-year-old burned Iraqi boy shouts in Arabic, seemingly unaware that the front of his oversized Spider-Man sweatshirt is soaked in drool.

Youssif's latest surgery -- one that removed thick, hard scar tissue that stretched half a foot across his face -- has dramatically improved his appearance, allowing him to open his mouth to take large bites of food and helping him to finally be able to smile again.

It's also left him with a drooping lower lip, causing him to drool without knowing it. However, over time, his lip should be fine.

Dr. Peter Grossman, Youssif's lead surgeon, says his current lip problem is mainly due to two factors: tightness caused by the scar tissue across his lower chin and the new flap of skin pulling down on his face.

"In general, this should subside over the next few months," he says. Photo See Youssif smile again »

"However, it is still likely that in the future we may have to tighten the lower lip surgically. For now, we have to let the swelling resolve and see how much the body improves itself."

The doctor says he is pleased with Youssif's progress so far -- that burn reconstructive surgery is typically two steps forward and one step back.

"I actually think with this last procedure it's more like three steps up," he says. "This is a [long] process, which is why we from the onset said that it will likely take over a year and up to a dozen procedures before we are done."

Youssif was grabbed by masked men outside his Baghdad home on January 15, doused with gasoline and set on fire. CNN.com users, the Children's Burn Foundation and the Grossman Burn Center helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to get him and his family out of Iraq for the treatment he needs. Video Watch how you -- the global Internet community -- rescued Youssif »

Rescuing Youssif
Watch a CNN exclusive "Impact Your World -- Rescuing Youssif" about the Iraqi boy's ordeal
Monday, 10 p.m. ET; Tuesday, 4 p.m. ET

He first arrived in September with his mother, father and little sister, Ayaa. Earlier this month Youssif underwent his most extensive surgery that removed his biggest scars. See how doctor removed the scars »

At Balboa Park, Youssif's father squats next to him at the edge of the water, cracking his first tired smile of the day at Youssif's antics and never-ending energy. When he's not feeding ducks, Youssif runs around kicking a soccer ball.

The emotional toll that his son's ordeal has taken on this 27-year-old Iraqi father is evident. The family has been living a nightmare ever since Youssif was attacked. His assailants have never been captured. Video Watch a dad's struggle to get help for his son »

And although Youssif's parents are exceedingly grateful to be in America and receive the best medical care, one realization that doctors warned about is truly beginning to set in -- Youssif's face will never be the same as it once was.

"Sometimes when he sleeps I just look at him and cry. He used to be so beautiful when he slept," his mother, Zaineb, says. "Sometimes I talk to myself. I try to convince myself that this is just a bad dream and that my son was never burned."

Youssif's parents are coping with what every parent of a child burn survivor struggles with.

"They want their son to return to the way he was, and it's hard to know and accept that he won't," says Keely Quinn, the program director with the Children's Burn Foundation who has been helping the family adjust.

"I hope knowing that Youssif is receiving excellent care and that his parents are doing the best that they can for him is of some comfort."

Seeing little Youssif run around, acting like a happy, bubbly boy is some comfort for his parents, but they still cling to the memory of Youssif before the attack.

Just recently, Youssif's father accidentally cut 16-month-old Ayaa's hair too short. For Zaineb, it's a bittersweet reminder of what her little boy used to look like at the same age.

"Sometimes, when I look at her, I want to cry," she says watching her daughter unsuccessfully try to chase her big brother around the park. "She reminds me so much of him. At least with this haircut, we can remember what he used to look like."

Youssif's parents are emotionally and mentally spent. They even admit their son has shown more strength throughout this ordeal than they have. To them, it seems their son is winning the battle to overcome his mental and emotional injuries, and he astonishingly seems to take the discomfort of recovery and multiple surgeries in stride. Video Watch a stirring music video tribute to Youssif »

"Oh, that was really bothering me, it was itchy," Youssif says happily after Quinn removes flaking skin at the corner of his lip.

"Youssif is an amazing survivor and tough little guy," Quinn says. "Compared to his parents, at 5 years old, he doesn't have the ability to see down the road how this will affect him. He just knows he will be 'fixed.' His parents have to deal with much more complex issues -- watching their son suffer, their guilt over the attack, and wondering what the next day will bring."

Youssif will need to deal with a face mask and physical therapy to help with his lower lip, and he will face many more surgeries, mostly to tweak some of the remaining scars.

Although he is aware of the ordeal ahead, he deals with it in his own way.

"You know, I can't feel my lip," he says with inquisitive eyes, back at the apartment where he and his family are living.

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He then turns around to take on his current priority -- beating the bad guys on his PlayStation Spider-Man game.

You can read about the impact of the war on other Iraqi children by clicking here. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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