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Burned Iraqi boy's road to recovery

By Arwa Damon, CNN
updated 10:17 AM EST, Tue December 6, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Masked men doused Youssif in gas and set him on fire in 2007 in Baghdad
  • Boy has undergone extensive facial reconstruction and counseling in U.S.
  • Reality of immigrant life in U.S. has sunk in for family
  • Youssif says he hopes to become a doctor to help others one day

Editor's note: Editor's note: CNN agreed not to use the full name of the family in this story because of concern for their safety.

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Youssif shows off his "certificate of citizenship," an award given to the Iraqi boy by his school in Los Angeles for being exceptionally nice.

"One kid got hurt, and I helped him," Youssif says. Another boy had gashed his arm, and Youssif applied an ice pack and helped stop the bleeding.

He smiles and proudly clutches the award. He says he likes to help kids who get hurt because he once was.

Seeing Youssif now, it's hard to believe he's the same boy CNN met in Baghdad four years ago -- the young boy who was grabbed by masked men, doused in gas and set on fire. Gone is the sullen, angry child, the one who withdrew when asked questions about his pain and what happened that day.

He was so savagely disfigured it looked as though his face melted and then froze into rivers that cut through swollen hard flesh.

Since then, he's undergone dozens of facial reconstructive surgeries in California and been through extensive counseling with his family. He still has scars from the attack, but it's his upbeat attitude that's most impressive.

He points to a recent photo. He says his looks no longer bother him. "Because, like, none of my other friends make fun of me," he says in perfectly American-accented English.

His mother beams. "His personality has changed so much," says Zaineb. "The way he interacts with people -- everything. It began as soon as he started school and realized that the children don't care about his appearance. It allowed him to have a normal life."

'The skin melted off'

Youssif, now 9, no longer remembers the details of that horrific day in Baghdad.

CNN's Arwa Damon's original report

Doctors say they have been most impressed by Youssif\'s mental recovery.
Doctors say they have been most impressed by Youssif's mental recovery.

It was January 15, 2007, the same day the "surge" of American troops began in the Iraqi capital to cut down on sectarian violence that plagued Baghdad.

Youssif played outside. His mother was upstairs when she heard her boy screaming. She rushed outside. "I thought someone was fighting or something," Zaineb said in 2007.

When the mother first saw her son on fire, she fainted. When she awoke, she barely recognized him. "His head was so swollen, you couldn't see his eyes, and his nose was pushed in.

"The skin was melted off."

Youssif's mom: Why my son?

He spent two months in an Iraqi hospital, where he received primitive care. His father, Wissam, was determined to get his son help. He pleaded with doctors and government officials -- anyone -- to give his son proper medical care. No one would listen. Doctors told the family there was little they could do to help the child.

His dad ended up on CNN's doorstep in Baghdad, desperate to tell his son's story, anything to help get his little boy's smile back.

When CNN first aired Youssif's story, viewers around the world responded to the family's plea, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Children's Burn Foundation, a Los Angeles-based foundation that took on his case.

His mental recovery has by far outpaced his physical one. He still needs more surgeries. Treating Youssif has been challenging, his doctors say, because his skin tends not to heal well. His doctors want to slow down the pace of surgeries for now to determine how his scar tissue and skin will develop and change as he gets older.

He loves soccer and plays on a local team. "I never used to do that in my country," he says, "because it was kind of dangerous there."

He wants to be a doctor so he can help others when he grows up.

Immigrant life in the U.S.

Youssif walks along the California beach with CNN\'s Arwa Damon, who first told the boy\'s story in 2007.
Youssif walks along the California beach with CNN's Arwa Damon, who first told the boy's story in 2007.

Life in the United States hasn't been easy. The family remains grateful for those who've helped them on their journey, but the realities of an immigrant family have sunk in.

The family struggles on their father's salary of $9 an hour as a security guard. To help make ends meet, they receive welfare and food stamps. Youssif's surgeries are covered by California Children's Services, as they be would for other children with disabilities who live in the state.

The family, which has political asylum, has expanded since arriving in the U.S. -- baby Mustafa was born two years ago. Youssif and his 5-year-old sister, Aya, hope to become American citizens one day, too.

Youssif's family arrives in U.S.

The family lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. Youssif and his sister sleep on the floor.

"I am trying to just help my kids, let them live like a normal life. It's very hard for them," Wissam said.

On a recent outing at a California beach, Youssif raced along the water's edge. He stopped and scooped up a sand ball. "You better not get close. This is a muddy one," he said.

I armed myself with seaweed. He ran shrieking toward the water. "This is going to be more fun than last time," he said.

The last time was when the family first arrived in the United States in September 2007. Youssif had never seen the ocean before: He laughed and giggled every time the waves crashed against his feet.

The ocean still brings that healing quality. Between our sand ball fights, Youssif grows reflective. He's lived nearly half his life in the U.S. He loves it here, but he's still desperately homesick. He wishes he could go back to Iraq.

"Because it's kind of my country, and I miss everyone I used to know there."

Yet he and his family know a return home will likely not come anytime soon. Youssif's father says family members back in Iraq say it remains far too dangerous. "They tell me it's still not safe. Sometimes when I tell them, 'I wish I could visit you,' they say, 'No, you cannot come.' "

And with U.S. troops preparing for their final pullout by the end of the year, the family worries they may never be able to go back home.

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