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Burned Iraqi boy stands tall 6 years later

By Danielle Dellorto, CNN
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
Youssif was 5 years old when masked men grabbed him, doused him in gas and set him on fire as he played outside in Baghdad in 2007. CNN agreed not to use the full names of Youssif and his family due to concern for their safety. Youssif was 5 years old when masked men grabbed him, doused him in gas and set him on fire as he played outside in Baghdad in 2007. CNN agreed not to use the full names of Youssif and his family due to concern for their safety.
Rescuing Youssif: 6 years later
Rescuing Youssif: 6 years later
Rescuing Youssif: 6 years later
Rescuing Youssif: 6 years later
Rescuing Youssif: 6 years later
Rescuing Youssif: 6 years later
  • Youssif was set on fire as he played in his Baghdad yard in 2007
  • CNN viewers, readers paid for the boy to come to the United States for treatment
  • Youssif is now 10 and in the fifth grade in California
  • He says he wants to become a doctor to help his family and others

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week we re-introduce you to a little boy named Youssif, who was badly burned during a violent attack outside his central Baghdad home in 2007.

(CNN) -- Unimaginable cruelty marked the beginning of Youssif's story.

At 5 years old, he was attacked by masked men as he played outside his Baghdad home in 2007. The men poured gasoline on his face and then set him on fire. His parents wondered, given their child's horrific injuries, whether he would ever smile again.

But Youssif's story struck a chord with CNN's millions of viewers and readers worldwide.

Just months after the attack, the boy and his family came to the United States with a single suitcase. Their living expenses and medical expenses -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- were paid in full by the kindness of strangers.

Iraqi boy set on fire now stands tall
Youssif no longer remembers attack

The family was granted asylum in the United States and still calls California home. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta has been following Youssif's journey since he arrived in the United States and recently traveled to California to visit Youssif and see his progress.

Youssif rubs face with hands, says 'no hurt'

Gupta says it's hard to believe that this is the same Youssif CNN has been following for nearly six years. The boy has undergone 19 operations and a total of 61 procedures at Grossman Burn Center since 2007.

Now 10, Youssif is very much a typical American fifth-grader. He's smart and confident. His favorite subject is math, and he tells Gupta that he hopes to be a doctor someday so he can help other people.

When asked whether he has any trouble making friends, he's quick to respond, "No, it's easy. Whenever a new person comes, the next day, we're just friends. No one is ever mean to me."

Youssif is now standing tall, thanks to the strength of his parents who risked so much to move to the United States. His father, 30 years old, still fears for the safety of his family in Iraq and prefers to keep his identity concealed as well as the full names of his children.

Video: Horribly burned Youssif has new life

CNN: How has life been since we last saw you?

Youssif's dad: His life is getting better and better. He's changed a lot, as you know. His English is great, and he is making a lot of of friends. He is much better than before.

CNN: How about you?

Youssif's dad: Life is getting really hard, and I'm just doing my best to keep my family happy and my kids.

CNN: Are you happy here in the United States?

Youssif's dad: I am happy, yes. I am happy especially because I see my kids happy. It means a lot to me. I see them happy. I'm here for their future.

CNN: Do you think you can do it? Can you make a life here in the United States?

Youssif's dad: It's not easy. I have two part-time jobs ... but it's not even covering even the rent. I get a little help for food from the government. I'm trying to find a full-time job. I'm just trying to make it all work.

CNN: Youssif seems happy today. I know you're happy about that. Does he know what the rest of the world is like?

Youssif's dad: I think he's a smart boy. He knows what's going on. Sometimes he comes and asks questions like a big man, not a little boy. So I think he knows what's going on.

Burned Iraqi boy's road to recovery

CNN: Do you worry about that -- when he goes to a new school he's going to get teased?

Youssif's dad: Yes.

CNN: Does a father prepare his son for that?

Youssif's dad: We have to be strong, and then we have to make him strong, too. I let him know that if anyone is going to come to you and tease you, you have to be smart and think before you do anything wrong.

CNN: Do you worry new wounds will be opened up emotionally?

Youssif's dad: I don't know about the new kids, how they're going to act towards him. He'll be fine with the friends he has now, but with the new kids, I think it is going to be hard.

CNN: Do you tell people what happened to Youssif?

Youssif's dad: Sometimes it bothers me when they don't ask and they keep just looking. It really bothers me. If they came to me and asked me, I would answer. I would love to answer and tell them what's going on instead of just looking at him. That bothers me a lot.

Youssif's mom: Why my son?

CNN: Does Youssif ask you to tell him about the attack?

Youssif's dad: He doesn't ask. He doesn't say anything about his face. Nothing bothers him, but it bothers me. I'm doing my best to keep them happy.

CNN: Youssif seems very ambitious and very courageous. What do you think about that when he says he wants to be a doctor?

Youssif's dad: I'm so happy to hear that, of course. Sometimes he comes to me and says, "I know you work like every day, you don't sleep well. I hope one day I'm going to be become a doctor, and then I will buy a house, pay for everything, and then you just rest, Dad." Sometimes when he comes to tell me that, I cry. It just means a lot to me.

CNN: It's been almost six years now since you've been in the United States. What do you think the next five years hold?

Youssif's dad: We don't know what is going to happen, but I hope it keeps getting better and better.

If you would like to donate to Youssif's family, you can reach them directly on Twitter.

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