Monday, April 30, 2007

Young Gaza amputee takes steps in Oakland

By Angela Hill, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 04/29/2007 02:50:57 AM PDT

OAKLAND — He was early for his appointment, of course. Seven-year-old Abdallah al-Athamna, who has been staying with Fatima and Adli Rasheed and their children in San Ramon for the past month, could barely sleep the night before. He talked nonstop Thursday morning while Adli Rasheed drove him to the specialist's office in Oakland, as if somehow the rush of words would make the car go faster.
After all, this very day was the reason for Abdallah's visit to the United States. This was the day he would get his new leg.

The bright-eyed little boy lost his lower right leg, just above the ankle, last Nov. 8 when Israeli shells fell on his family's house in the Palestinian city of Beit Hanoun, on the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip.

His mother was killed, as were his two little sisters — 3-year-old Maram and 9-month-old Maysaa — and 15 other members of his extended family. At least two other people died, and 40 more were injured. It was an incident that sparked a worldwide reaction, and changed life forever for Abdallah, his father and the remnants of their once-large, once-prosperous clan.

Abdallah spent several weeks in various hospitals, first in Gaza City, then in Egypt. A healthy and resilient child, he recovered fairly quickly, but stillneeded a prosthesis.

So with help from the Palestine Children's Relief Fund — an American humanitarian organization that provides free medical services in the U.S. for sick and injured children — Abdallah and another boy, who is staying with a host family in San Francisco, were flown here March 25 to receive donated services from Bay Area specialists. Abdallah will go home to his father in a few weeks.
Robert Smith, a prosthetist in Oakland, agreed to donate his time and a custom prosthetic device — which ordinarily would run about $5,000.

"I see somebody's excited," Smith said to smiling and fidgeting Abdallah in an examination room of the CIRS Prosthetics & Orthotics offices on 40th Street on Thursday. "I saw you through the window. You came nearly running in on your crutches, didn't you?"

Abdallah, who speaks only a few words of English, smiled shyly. Smith held out the carbon fiber-sleeved device with a flexible-keel foot.

"Wanna see?" he asked.

Abdallah's black eyes opened wide, as if being presented with a coveted toy. Smith fitted the device to Abdallah's limb, secured it with Velcro straps, and the boy instantly stood and walked out of the exam room and into the lobby. A little wobbly at first, but quickly sure footed.

"It's always amazing with kids," Smith said. "No crutches, no parallel bars. No fear of falling. They catch on right away."

Abdallah said a soft "Thank you" in English, and wobbled over to hug Smith. Adli Rasheed snapped a photo for Abdallah's father.

"His dad called on the way here, and wants to express his gratitude also," Adli Rasheed told Smith.

The day before this final fitting, Abdallah had happily hopped on his good leg through the kitchen of the Rasheeds' home — his preferred method of travel rather than on his crutches.

Well-mannered, Abdallah shook hands with visitors and smiled. He had been upstairs playing a video game with one of the Rasheeds' children, and has already become familiar with some American ways. He's been to the Oakland Zoo, and likes In-N-Out burgers — plain, with no cheese or spread. And he had been watching Heather Mills, who has a prosthetic leg, with great interest as she performed on the TV show "Dancing with the Stars."

Back home in Beit Hanoun, Abdallah was a very good student, Fatima Rasheed said.

"There, instead of A's and B's, they do it by numbers — the best student in class is number 1, then 2, then 3 and so on," she said. "He would always take the second in his class. So he is very bright."

One of his favorite things to do is ride his bike.

"He was telling me that he used to race everybody on his bike and nobody could beat him," Adli Rasheed said. "He hopes to do that again."

Abdallah, climbing up on Adli Rasheed's lap as he sat on the couch, showed visitors a photograph of his family — a collage of old photos that his father put together for him after his mother and sisters died. Each face is superimposed on a heart shape.

"This is my sister, and this is my sister," he explained, pointing at the girls, as Adli Rasheed translated.

Abdallah is a happy child, but he has his moments, Fatima Rasheed said. Especially after his daily phone calls with his father back home.

"He feels homesick," she said.

"And he's been traveling a lot, so he hasn't really spent much time at his home," Adli Rasheed said, smoothing Abdallah's hair after another rambunctious hug on the couch. "He understands very well what happened, but I don't think it has really hit him, to see what's left."

It was just one day after Israel Defense Forces had pulled out from the northern Gaza Strip in a weeklong operation to deter rocket attacks fired by Palestinian militants. Because of the withdrawal, residents in Beit Hanoun felt somewhat secure and went about their daily routines, said Dina Aburous, a volunteer for PCRF's Bay Area chapter.

The al-Athamna family was one of the largest and most respected middle-class families in town, a well-educated group of doctors, engineers, merchants, farmers and, like Abdallah's father, taxi drivers. They all lived together in four floors of one building — similar to a four-plex, with Abdallah's immediate family on the second level. Some were still asleep. Some had risen at about 5:30 in the morning for the dawn prayer. They heard an explosion outside. Close.

Word soon came that Abdallah's uncle was injured, Aburous said. Abdallah's father drove the uncle to the hospital in his taxi. But the shelling continued for about 15 minutes more.

"In moments, six shells fell on their house, and other houses nearby," Aburous said. "Abdallah's father and others shuttled people back and forth to the hospital. While on one of these trips in the hospital, two hours later, he sees Abdallah there," she said.

"Later, he went to the morgue and identified his wife, his

9-month-old daughter and his

3-year-old daughter," she said.

This was said to be the highest Palestinian civilian death toll in a single incident since the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted in 2000. According to news reports, IDF officials later said its artillery guidance system malfunctioned. The intended target was a missile-launching spot nearby, but civilian homes were hit instead. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the shelling a "mistake."

"Abdallah's father told us, 'We used to be a big family, all of us living together,'" Aburous said. "He said, 'Now we're only a handful.'"

At the Oakland prosthetics office Thursday, Abdallah continued to practice walking, back and forth, again and again. He would sit briefly to rest, then be back at it some more.

As he grows, the device will need to be refitted every couple of years, so he may need to come back to the U.S. occasionally. The leg may take some getting used to, but Smith said Abdallah should be able to ride his bike, and play soccer at school again.

Next stop, shoe shopping.

"We're going to buy him some Nike Airs today," Adli Rasheed said.

"This is wonderful for him to have this device. But because of his age, I believe he thinks the prosthetic leg will solve everything, that this is going to be the answer," Adli Rasheed said. "There is much that will still be difficult for him when he goes back home."

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