Two-year-old Dilbireen came to the US with a charity group to receive medical care
With his parents still in Iraq, he was facing a series of surgeries without them
After months in limbo, the Yazidi boy has reunited with his parents and newborn brother
The tears didn’t stop, but they were tears of joy.
His parents, Ajeel Muhsin and Flosa Khalaf, couldn’t contain their emotion.
“They both burst into tears,” said Sally Becker, founder of the UK-based charity Road to Peace, which facilitated Dilbireen’s reunion with his family.
Dilbireen, who traveled to the United States with his father and Becker in October to undergo medical treatment and surgeries for severe burns, simply smiled and gazed at his parents and the baby brother he had never met, until now. CNN was there exclusively to capture the reunion.
“Thank God we’re all together again,” Muhsin said in comments translated from Kurdish.
“I want to thank everyone involved in this, to help us come here to do his surgeries,” Muhsin said. “It’s really hard to stay away from your child even when they’re healthy, let alone he was burned and he was here alone.”
The only one who wasn’t crying during the reunion was Dilbireen, noted Becker. She accompanied the family on their flight from Iraq to the US on Monday.
“It’s been a long time, but he completely accepted them, and it’s as if they’ve never been away now,” Becker said of Dilbireen’s reaction to his family. “And he seems to love his little brother. That’s terrific, but it’s been a very long road, this road to peace. A lot of false starts.”
Overcoming bumps along the road
Dilbireen’s parents have been desperately waiting to be by their son’s side since their visas were revoked in early January and a passport application for Dilbireen’s brother was denied.
Later that month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep most citizens of seven predominately Muslim nations from entering the US for at least 90 days from when the order was signed.
Iraq, the family’s homeland, was among the nations affected, leaving Dilbireen’s parents even more concerned that they would not be able to visit their son in the United States and bring him home.
While the family was in limbo, Dilbireen was left in the care of Adlay Kejjan, director of the Yazidi American Women Organization. The next round of surgeries he needed were put on hold until his parents and newborn brother could enter the United States.
Last week, desperation turned into joy for Dilbireen’s family, all of whom had been issued new US visas to accompany Dilbireen as he continues his treatments at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Boston.
“Dilbireen requires intensive surgery, and the aftercare is extensive. Having both his mother and father here to provide that care will make an enormous difference in his recovery both physically and emotionally,” said Scott LaStaiti, a Los Angeles-based film producer and philanthropist who was involved in finding Dilbireen medical care.
“In terms of his overall well-being, he’s a 2-year-old child who has been without his parents for several months now. I do not think I can begin to quantify the benefits of being reunited with his family again, including his baby brother,” LaStaiti said.
A family seeking solace from terror
Dilbireen, whose name means “wounded heart” in Kurdish, was born January 4, 2015, at a camp for internally displaced persons. His family, who are Yazidis, fled to the camp to escape the carnage being committed by ISIS near their home.
The United States declared last year that ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq living around Mount Sinjar.
Then, on Dilbireen’s first birthday, the family experienced more heartbreak.
Dilbireen was severely burned on his face and feet when a gas heater malfunctioned and set his crib ablaze inside a prefabricated hut at the camp. Khalaf, Dilbireen’s mother, was baking bread outside when the fire erupted.
Doctors in Iraq tended to Dilbireen’s burns but advised that his parents seek treatment outside the country, said Dilbireen’s father, Muhsin.
LaStaiti and Becker, founder of Road to Peace, made arrangements for Dilbireen and other injured refugee children to receive medical treatment at Shriners Hospitals for Children at no cost. Road to Peace works with groups around the world to help build alliances between communities in conflict and facilitate specialized medical care for refugee children.
“Born in a camp where his parents have been living since fleeing their home on Sinjar mountain, this amazing and resilient little boy is a symbol of the suffering of the Yazidis and other religious minorities in the region,” Becker said last week.
“The Yazidis have been victims of many genocides over the centuries, and there are only around 800,000 left in the world,” she said. “So this mission isn’t just about helping Dilbireen; it’s about highlighting the plight of his people.”
What’s next for Dilbireen and his care
Dilbireen underwent the first round of surgeries to restore the appearance and function of his face in October. Muhsin was by his side during the procedure but returned to Iraq in November to be with Khalaf as she gave birth to Dilbireen’s brother.
“America is helping us to do surgery on our boy,” Muhsin said in an interview this month. “We want to show our appreciation to America for what they are doing for our boy.”
The couple named Dilbireen’s brother Trump. He was born the day after the US presidential election.
As the family made attempts to travel to the United States to accompany Dilbireen during his next round of surgeries and to introduce him to his brother, Trump, they were both confused and disheartened by the resistance they faced.
“First time they denied our visas, they thought we were coming here to stay. They thought, if our entire family comes here, we would not return,” Muhsin said. “Originally when we had visas, my wife was pregnant. If our intention was to stay here, we would have come all together. Our child would have been born here. He would have been a US citizen. But we had no intentions to stay here.”
Now, the family seems both relieved and content to be together again.
“My understanding is that this next round of surgeries will focus on the scar tissue around his right eye, but ultimately Shriners will determine what’s next for Dilbireen after they see him this week,” LaStaiti said.
After seeing Dilbireen on Tuesday, doctors at Shriners say that he is doing well and that he will begin his next reconstructive surgery soon. They hope to space out the procedures to improve the form and function of his face.
Meanwhile, Khalaf said she remains grateful that her son can continue his surgeries.
“As long as his surgeries are done and he gains his health back,” she said in comments translated from Kurdish. “We don’t want anything else in life.”
‘The most meaningful thing I’ve known’
While Dilbireen and his family are saying “hello again,” the tenacious toddler and his caretaker, Kejjan, will be saying “goodbye.”
Kejjan, a paramedic and pilot based in Lansing, Michigan, serves as an advocate for the Yazidi community and cared for Dilbireen at her home in Michigan for the past few months.
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Yet she said that not only has she cared for Dilbireen, he has cared for her.
“He’s given us unconditional love. He’s such an easy child to take care of. He doesn’t ask for much. He’s very independent. He just gives love freely and unconditionally. It doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s me, my family or a stranger,” Kejjan said.
“I’m excited because he’s going to see his parents but at the same time sad because I won’t have him. He’s been the center of my life the last three and a half months,” she said, adding that she plans to help more children in need of medical care. “It’s been the most meaningful thing of my life, the most meaningful thing I’ve known.”