After losing her legs in a U.S. airstrike, an Iraqi girl takes her first steps with the help of a stranger with a big heart
Salee Allawee held her arms stiff, found her balance and slowly placed her right foot in front of her left. For nine months, the 10-year-old had been confined to a wheelchair after losing her legs in an airstrike in Iraq. Learning to walk again with new prosthetics, the girl was so focused, she barely noticed the teary-eyed adults riveted by her every step. “We started to clap, and she was befuddled,” says Cole Miller, one of the guardian angels watching her. “She looked at us like, ‘What’s the big deal?'”
In fact, Salee has much to be thankful for. She was playing hopscotch near her 13-year-old brother Akram last November when U.S. military jets bombed their Iraqi village in an attack on insurgents. Shrapnel lopped her legs off at the knee and struck her brother dead, his lifeless body scattered in pieces. “I went to pick up Salee and she screamed, ‘Dad, I can’t get up! My legs! My legs!'” recalls her father, Hussein Allawee, 37, a foreman at a pickle factory. Salee’s injuries could have killed her; she received rudimentary medical care in Iraq and gave up hope of ever walking again.
Until she came to the attention of Cole Miller. As founder of the nonprofit No More Victims, the Los Angeles freelance writer turned activist has brought six Iraqi war-injured children to the U.S. for life-changing medical care, including a 3-year-old girl who had her eyesight restored in Florida and an 8-year-old boy who had shrapnel removed from his abdomen in California. Miller, 50, first heard about Salee’s injury last December and enlisted help from the nonprofit Upstate Coalition of Compassion, which promptly arranged for treatment and therapy at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville, S.C., found a room for the girl and her father at the Ronald McDonald House and raised $12,000 for travel costs. Miller, meanwhile, reached out to politicians for help in navigating State Department bureaucracy. Says Rick McDowell, an expert on health care in Iraq: “He’s given these kids a chance at life.”
For months after the attack, Salee grew despondent; the once bubbly girl stopped eating, had trouble sleeping and refused to leave her room for fear that other kids would laugh at the stumps of her legs. “My cousin Baneen was the only one I’d play with. She’d bring a doll and lay it in my lap and sleep beside me,” says Salee. Because of a shortage of prosthetics in Iraq, especially for children, her chances of walking again were slim. “I thought,” says her father, “she would just sit at home for the rest of her life.”
The tragedy of lives cut short is what moved Miller to action. The son of a civil litigation lawyer and a political activist, he grew up in Casper, Wyo., and dropped out of high school before eventually graduating from college and spending 20 years working as a freelance writer. Then, in 2002, opposed to the nation’s preparation for war with Iraq, Miller created a Web site (www.nomorevictims.org) featuring Iraqi children injured in previous U.S. attacks. “I wanted to show the human face of ‘collateral damage,'” says Miller, who devotes most of his time to helping the injured kids and supports himself by writing a radio series on the environment. “I don’t know that I was searching for a purpose, but I noticed the difference when I stumbled across this.”
The difference in Salee’s life is also profound. No longer reclusive, the young girl dissolves into giggles when the gregarious Miller enters the room; with just a few shared words in English and Arabic, the two playfully pinch and tickle each other like school kids. He buys her ice cream; she gives him high-fives and big grins. “She took to Cole very quickly,” says her father, who met Miller in Jordan in June before the trio flew to the U.S. “He made it apparent he was there to make her really, really happy.” It goes both ways: “I keep falling more and more in love with this child,” says Miller, who is divorced and has no children of his own. “I can never complain about anything—her cheerfulness shames me.”
It’s a joy her father is glad to see. “Before Cole came, the world was ending,” he says. “But now she’s the playful, innocent girl that she was. It’s a sudden miracle—until I die, I won’t forget what Cole did.” Neither will his daughter. “When I get home, I want to walk to my mama and give her a hug,” says Salee, who will remain in Greenville until next month undergoing therapy. “Then,” she adds with a bright smile, “I’m going to run out to see my friends. I am not embarrassed anymore.”
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