Mustafa Ahmed Abed has a few words of English left from his time as a young child in the United States. These days, he doesn’t have anyone to practice them with, so he repeats words to himself over and over as he walks home from school in Fallujah. With one leg, the journey on crutches takes him an hour.
Mustafa, now almost 15, was two years old at the start of the battle for Fallujah in November 2004. As the U.S. shelled al-Qaida fighters in a nearby neighborhood, he and his mother were hit by shrapnel.
“I was carrying him, and all of a sudden, Mustafa flew out of my arms,” his mother Nidhal Aswad recalls. “My arm was badly injured and my side was injured … He was on the ground … All I could see of him were his intestines all over the place.”
Aswad crawled to her baby in the deserted street. His left leg had nearly been severed. When relatives got them to a hospital, making their way through the fighting two days later, doctors amputated her son’s leg at the hip.
They told her that Mustafa would likely die.
Her boy pulled through. But his kidneys were failing.
For the next four years, Mustafa’s parents tried and failed to get proper medical help in Iraq. Mustafa’s father, Ahmed Abed, says U.S. military doctors took an interest in his case and referred him to an American nonprofit. In 2008, a group called No More Victims arranged to bring Mustafa, then five, with his father to Portland, Oregon, for treatment.
Medical teams at the city’s Shriners Hospital removed one of Mustafa’s kidneys and a bladder stone, and fitted him with a prosthetic leg. The little Iraqi boy became a local celebrity, showered with gifts and attention.