Syria

Texas hospital gives firebombed Syrian children a second chance at life

In the summer of 2014, 4-year-old Safia was playing in her family home in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor when a bomb blast scalded 70 percent of her face and body. An explosive device in the Syrian city of Deir Al Zour left Israa, 8, severely burned. And a jet missile in Daraa that killed the family of 10-year-old Yumna also left her with melted flesh. 

They are considered the lucky ones.

They are among 11 Syrian children who for the past three years have been brought to the famed burn center at Shriners Hospital for Children (SHC) in Galveston, Texas, for a second chance at life. The injured kids were flown to the hospital under a program established by the non-profit Burnt Children Relief Foundation (BCRF), which raises money to transport the children while the hospital’s team assists with medical costs. 

“The humanitarian crisis is the worst since World War II,” Syrian Institute for Progress (SIP) Chairwoman Susan Baaj, who coordinates the foundation’s efforts to assist the children, told Fox News. “These kids are in dire need for help.”  

The most recent case, 7-year-old Moath – whose face was deeply seared by flames in Aleppo – arrived with his mother last Thursday to begin his long road to recovery. 

“SHC has a global focus. Many times, the specialized care children need is not available in Syria, so we provide the care,” said John McCabe, executive vice president of Shriner’s Hospital.

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“We believe every child deserves the best chance in life.”

SIP President Saed Moujtahed, who is the foundation’s founder, said one of its biggest challenges is navigating the necessary paperwork for the children to enter the U.S. Most of the young and wounded do not have any identification papers, their homes often blown to bits in the bombing.

“We face challenges with determining guardianship and obtaining travel visas,” McCabe said, “as we cannot transport them to one of our hospitals without these.”

Through cooperation between the U.S Consulate in Istanbul and the Turkish consulates in Los Angeles and Houston, travel documents are processed for the child in need and one (female) immediate family member.

Almost every day, the foundation receives desperate request for help from families abroad with young children severely singed by conflict. But, because of financial constraints, the all-volunteer foundation can only help the most severe cases. Scores of other children are still waiting to cut through visa red tape. 

But, Moujtahed noted, unlike other controversial refugee programs, the foundation’s policy is not to grant permanent residency to the children. Rather, the children in desperate need undergo surgeries and follow-up treatment – which could last between six months to two years, on average – before returning to the Middle East. So far, three of the cases have successfully returned to countries neighboring Syria and the others soon will follow. 

Oklahoma Republican Congressman Steve Russell, a retired soldier, said he is proud of the work the hospital and the foundation is doing. The effort has bipartisan support and the backing of the U.S. State Department.

“I visited Syrian refugee camps (in Turkey) during the big debate about refugees. I wanted to see what the vetting process was and see it firsthand,” Russell told Fox News, referring to last year’s deep divides over the resettlement of Syrians amid terrorism concerns. “During the course of that we became aware of a family, a mother who had lost several children but her youngest daughter, Kawthar, was horribly burned and disfigured.”

Kawthar, 2, from Idlib, has since undergone successful treatment at Shriner’s and returned to build a new life with her displaced family in Turkey. 

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The foundation also tries to integrate the children into the “American way of life” through education, English-language classes and other activities – even though their stay in the country is not permanent. And while the foundation was specifically established to treat Syrian minors, it hopes to eventually expand its mission to children across the world who have been caught in the cross fire of conflict.

“The biggest reward is looking at the change in the child – not only physically, but psychologically,” Moujtahed said, recalling the way in which Kawthar spotted another child around her own age in recovery dancing, and for the first time danced, too. “You can see the smile and you can sense the security of the faces of these children. There is great peace that comes with that.”

Jamie Brennan contributed to this report 

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay