WASHINGTON — Her pink canvas shoes, her stuffed bears and her sturdy metal leg braces were packed neatly into cardboard boxes, ready for Ma’rwa’s long journey home to Iraq.
The time for goodbyes was near.
Ma’rwa’s friends loaded up jeans, cameras, quilts and rolls of fabric, 475 pounds in all. They packed her medicines, too, not thinking about the day when the supply would run out and they would not be there to find more.
And they carefully wrapped a special gift: a globe that sat next to her hospital bed. Ma’rwa could use it one day to show her family how far she had traveled, the ocean she had crossed, the distant places — Texas and Minnesota — where her new friends live.
The outside world, with its cruelties and kindnesses, had never really intruded on her until an artillery shell exploded on the edge of her family’s farm.
That blast ripped apart her life and started Ma’rwa Ahteemi on an extraordinary odyssey. With strangers rallying around her, the 13-year-old — a girl who loves red nail polish and pink clothes — became more than just one of the thousands of civilian casualties in this war.
Ma’rwa made friends who spanned the continents, from the desert battlefield to the marble halls of Congress, with each one tenderly passing her along.
They helped heal her, they cheered her as she tried to take her first steps, they gave her something she desperately needed — hope.
In the end, they sent her home — a scarred girl back to her scarred land — nurturing their own hopes that what they had done will matter, that it will give Ma’rwa a new start in life.
It was a rainy, windy morning in November, a bloody month for Americans in Iraq, when a mortar shell screamed from the sky deep in the heart of the deadly Sunni Triangle.
Iraqi insurgents lurking in an orchard had launched an attack on a U.S. Army base, but they missed. When the Americans returned fire, they missed, too.
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Their 155 mm howitzer shell tore into the earth about 60 yards from a crowded house nestled in the farm fields outside Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
It was 7 a.m., and Ma’rwa Ahteemi and her large family, including 17 brothers and sisters and three mothers, awoke in terror.
Debris and red-hot shrapnel pounded their walls and shattered their windows. Babies screamed. Children cried. Everyone wanted to run. Ma’rwa’s father said no.
“If we are going to die,” he declared, “let us die in our own house.”
But their panic only grew.
“Let’s go!” one of Ma’rwa’s sisters suddenly shouted, and several others bolted with her into the wet air. Ma’rwa hesitated for a moment, then dashed outside.
Just then, another shell came howling out of the clouds.
In an instant, Ma’rwa’s 10-year-old sister was dead, her skull split open. Her 8-year-old brother, 2-year-old sister, baby niece and a stepmother were killed, too.
Shrapnel pierced Ma’rwa’s stomach, spine and face. Blood flowed from her nose, ears and mouth.
She collapsed in a pool of rainwater, where a live wire had fallen.
She struggled to pull herself up, but couldn’t move her legs. She screamed for her father.
“Carry me!” she cried. “Carry me!”
'We'd made a mistake'
A few days later, Ma’rwa sat in a hospital bed in Balad, all feeling gone from her legs, tears streaming down her cheeks, as a U.S. Army officer tried to console her.
It was Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment who would become the first link in the long chain of people, each with a special reason, who intervened on Ma’rwa’s behalf.
The commander was frustrated. Ma’rwa and other injured family members were bandaged but seemingly ignored.
“Are they going to be looked at?” he asked an Iraqi surgeon, then proposed bringing in American doctors.
Sassaman was trying to make amends. “We’d made a mistake,” he later explained, “and we were trying to help the family out.”
The ironies of war were ever-present, and not just in Americans trying to help a child inadvertently hurt by their weapons. Sassaman, who would later be disciplined for impeding an investigation into an Iraqi civilian’s drowning, was hoping others would hear about his goodwill gesture toward Ma’rwa’s family.
“It was a way of building trust in the community,” he says.
An Army trauma surgeon arranged for Ma’rwa, two brothers and a sister to be transferred to the 21st Combat Support Hospital.
There, among the sand-coated tents, Maj. Mary Adams-Challenger, a physical therapist, met her newest patient.
She noticed Ma’rwa had a large, potentially life-threatening pressure sore on her backside, caused by the malnourished girl’s long days on thin mattresses.
Ma’rwa needed treatment for that and she had to learn a new way to dress, bathe and go to the bathroom (she lost bladder control from her injuries). She needed a wheelchair, too,
“I couldn’t sleep at night. I was tossing and turning,” says Adams-Challenger. She began e-mailing friends, family, other physical therapists. That’s when she discovered a pediatrician stationed just down the road.
Rehabilitation in America
It was Dr. Sharnell Hoffer, who works in Minnesota but was serving as a major with the Iowa National Guard. When Hoffer stopped by, she worried because Ma’rwa wasn’t eating and was just a scrap of a kid at 4-feet-7½-inches and 60 pounds.
One day, as Hoffer pored over a catalogue of charities, deciding which ones to contribute to, it hit her: Surely, one of these groups could help Ma’rwa. She enlisted another soldier to compose an appeal.
When that note seeking help popped up on Marcie Roth’s computer screen, 6,000 miles away in Rockville, Md., another link was forged.
As director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, Roth is not only well-connected, she’s also persistent.
Within 72 hours, Roth had lined up the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington to take Ma’rwa and a guardian — and pay for her care.
Next she had to arrange for Ma’rwa’s trip. Roth had no idea so many agencies — in two countries — had to sign off to get one wounded Iraqi girl carried aboard a Department of Defense plane and flown out of a war zone. Roth turned to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a supporter on disability issues. Another link. Harkin wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then called Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
By this time, Ma’rwa had a donated wheelchair and plans for rehabilitation in America. Her spirits lifted, her eyes began to sparkle, her face glowed.
On Feb. 28, when Ma’rwa and her uncle landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Adams-Challenger and Hoffer, who’d already rotated back home, flew in from Texas and Minnesota to greet her.
As Ma’rwa’s ambulance sped off into the night, the majors pointed out the U.S. Capitol, the place where the Iraq war had been debated. Her eyes wide, Ma’rwa gazed at the dome bathed in light. She uttered one word:
In her first night in America, Ma’rwa made fast friends: She painted the fingernails of her nurses.
But soon it was time for hard work: three hours of therapy every day.
“I thank my God,” she said, “I have been given this chance.”
Fears and doubts
By April, she could dismantle her wheelchair — with her own comical flair. She’d sigh in exhaustion and cross her eyes as she tugged at the seat cushion with cherry-red fingernails and squeezed the back until it folded like an accordion.
In three months, Ma’rwa gained 15 pounds, strength and confidence.
By May, she had taken her first steps in thigh-to-ankle braces that she’ll use mostly for indoors.
“She’s very motivated, very practical, a very creative thinker,” says Dr. Sally Evans, who supervised her care.
But Ma’rwa still has shrapnel embedded in her spinal cord and stomach and nerve damage in her legs. The girl who liked to frolic on her farm, cook and sew must adapt — though she doesn’t concede much.
“I can still wash my clothes,” she says. “Just sit me on the floor and bring me the pot. I can do anything.”
Beneath that determination, though, Mar’wa harbors fears and doubts.
She confided them to Abir Elsiyed, her Sudanese-born translator, worrying she won’t be able to dance like other women at village weddings, and agonizing over the shelling.
As time passed, Ma’rwa grew eager to return home.
To what, it’s difficult to say. Despite her progress, life in Iraq will not be easy. Wheelchairs aren’t suited for the unpaved roads around her farm. Even her newly learned independence only goes so far. Ma’rwa will need money and medicine to stay healthy.
The National Rehabilitation Hospital donated a year’s supply of medicines and supplies (worth $8,000) and ordered a special wheelchair with thick wheels, suitable for sand. Marcie Roth raised more than $10,000 for Ma’rwa’s family and established a fund to collect more.
In late May, Ma’rwa was carried aboard a C-141 military transport for her journey home. Elsiyed, her confidante, was there to say goodbye.
“I don’t want you to forget me,” Ma’rwa said, “and I want you to forgive me for the times I was silly and naughty.”
Elsiyed replied softly: “I love you and I will for the rest of my life.”
Two days later, Ma’rwa and her uncle, Saleh Mohammed Ali, landed at the U.S. military air base in Balad. Her father awaited her.
As they set out, the base shook again. A mortar fired by Iraqi insurgents landed nearby. No one was hurt.
Ma’rwa Ahteemi returned home safely.
A special Ma’rwa’s Fund has been established at the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, PO Box 631002, Baltimore, Md. 21263-1002