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Iraqi boy set on fire in Baghdad and brought to U.S. for treatment is granted asylum

May 10, 2010 |  1:16 pm

An Iraqi boy set on fire while playing outside his Baghdad house in 2007 has been granted asylum to stay in the U.S., his attorney said Monday.

Youssif, his parents and his younger sister applied for asylum last year because they feared they would be killed if they returned to their home country. Youssif, who has had more than a dozen surgeries, also is still undergoing treatment at the Grossman Burn Center.

“It is a big relief,” said the family’s attorney, Maurice M. Suh. “We’re glad that the right decision was made.”

The family learned the news Monday morning, just before heading to the hospital for Youssif’s mother to give birth to their third child.

The brutal attack occurred in January 2007, when unidentified assailants doused 5-year-old Youssif in gasoline and set him ablaze. After the boy’s story aired on CNN, the Sherman Oaks-based Children’s Burn Foundation brought him and his family to Southern California in September for treatment. The family’s last name is being withheld for security reasons.

When he first arrived, Youssif had trouble eating and brushing his teeth because he couldn’t open his mouth wide, Dr. Peter Grossman said. And his scarring was so significant that he turned heads wherever he went, he said. Since then, Grossman has operated on Youssif multiple times to reduce the scarring.

Though Youssif still has scars, Grossman said they are nowhere near what they were when he first came to the U.S. “I don’t think we’ve hit a home run, but I think we’ve hit a triple,” Grossman said, adding that there is still more to do.

His mother said both Youssif’s appearance and his mood have improved a lot in the last three years. At first, he was angry, aggressive and introverted. But over time, he has become more calm and comfortable.

“After the surgeries, a lot of things changed,” said his mother, Zaienab. “He could eat. He could smile.”

The treatment has been better than the family could have wished for, she said. “Imagine, here Youssif loves the hospital. In Iraq, if you just mention the word hospital, he would start shaking and crying,” she said.
Now 7, Youssif speaks English, loves Spider-Man and playing soccer with his classmates. His favorite movie is "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."

The family filed for asylum in December 2009, and Youssif's parents attended their asylum interview in February.

Youssif’s mother said that because of the media attention, many people in the Arab world know of her son and the treatment and financial support they have received in America.

“It is well-known that Youssif was treated by Americans and a Jewish doctor,” she said. “If anyone deals with Americans, they consider them traitors... They would kill us at the airport.”

In addition, the family is still vulnerable because Youssif’s parents are in an interfaith marriage – his father is Sunni and his mother is Shiite.

“The same factors exist as did before, but now they are even more of a target,” Suh said. In addition to putting the family in danger, Suh said sending Youssif back to Iraq would interrupt his medical care.

“It would be the cruelest thing to treat him halfway and send him back, where he wouldn’t receive treatment,” Suh said.

After school one recent day, Youssif walked up to the family's apartment and his mother hugged him and gave him a kiss on the head. He took off his Batman backpack and sat down for a snack.

His mother said staying in the United States will allow her to provide a safe future for her children.
“It was our dream to help Youssif,” she said. “We’ve accomplished that. Staying here is another dream.”

-- Anna Gorman