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As scars heal, Youssif settles back into boyhood

  • Story Highlights
  • Youssif continues to be treated in California for his burns, scars
  • He is enrolled in school and learning English
  • More surgeries lie ahead
  • Boy was doused with gasoline, set on fire by masked men in Baghdad
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By Arwa Damon
CNN
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Editor's note: Since 2007, CNN and CNN.com have followed the story of Youssif, an Iraqi boy disfigured when he was burned by attackers. Today, CNN's Arwa Damon catches up with the boy and his family, now living in California where Youssif is undergoing treatment.

Youssif was known for his bright smile before he was attacked by masked men.

Today Youssif goes to school in California and continues to have treatment to help his scars.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Youssif stands on stage beaming as he belts out "Jingle Bell Rock," his tiny burned hands waving in sync with his classmates at Hamlin Street School.

His mother, Zaineb, stands at the back, cradling his little sister, Aya, tears rolling down her face. "I am so proud of him," she says. "It reminds me of what he was like in Iraq when he used to sing in kindergarten. I felt for a moment that none of this had happened. My son was back, without fear, strong."

Youssif spots us, and waves wildly. Little appears to remain of the sullen and withdrawn dark-eyed boy we first met in Baghdad more than a year ago.

It has been almost two years since masked men in Baghdad doused Youssif, then just 4 years old, in gasoline and set him on fire. His mother still doesn't sleep at night.

"I still blame myself. I should have protected him. Sometimes I say to myself that I wish it had happened to me, just not to him." Zaineb says, her voice starting to quiver. "If only I hadn't let him go out to play that day."

Today Youssif plays freely, without fear.

"Let's race" he shouts to his friend Brandon as the two boys dash across the schoolyard. A couple of minutes later the two are playfully jostling over a rubber ball. Youssif shrieks and bursts into laughter as the two play catch.

"It's like this weight has been lifted off of me, off of him," his father, Wissam, says. "It's like we've left this dark, depressing state where we were consumed by Youssif and the attack that had happened. You know, it's so hard to see a child, my child, go through something like this. When I see him like this, I feel like he's coming back." Video Watch more on Youssif's recovery »

After CNN and CNN.com first reported Youssif's story in 2007, more than 12,000 CNN.com users contributed to a fund set up by the Children's Burn Foundation of Sherman Oaks California, enabling the boy and his family to travel to the United States for treatment.

Youssif has undergone more than a dozen surgeries. Much of the thick scar tissue around his eyes, mouth and nose -- left by his treatment in Baghdad -- has been removed. He currently has yet another tissue expander in his left cheek, intended to stretch out "good skin" to be used to replace his scar tissue.

Youssif has grown used to the sometimes painful treatments. "When I started this process of tissue expansion, I would have to chase him around the room," Dr. Peter Grossman, Youssif's surgeon, tells us as he injects more liquid into the expander. "We'd need three people to hold him down for these injections."

Youssif will probably have many more surgeries stretched out over time. "The problem we have with Youssif is that every operation we do tends to heal well after surgery, but then a month after, he starts to form these really thick scars," Grossman said. "It's probably best at this time to let his body relax, let these scars mature over a period of a year or two years."

Today, Youssif grimaces in pain but braves it alone, refusing to take his father's hand.

"Seven or eight times put water," Youssif says back at home, explaining how the tissue expansion works. "I am not scared. It goes here," he says pointing to the scarring over his lip.

He's not all that interested in talking about medical procedures.

"When I sharpen this it broke," he says, trotting over with his new pencils. We all smile.

"You cut it like this" he orders, handing me scissors and what is meant to be a snowman he's just drawn.

A few moments later I am being berated for coloring "wrong."

"Great, I am taking orders from a 6-year-old" I think to myself, laughing.

Keely Quinn with the Children's Burn Foundation comes by for an extra reading lesson. They are reading one of the "Five Little Monkeys" books, Youssif's favorite.

By the time I join them on the couch, Youssif's got Dr. Seuss' "Foot Book."

"What's the biggest change you've seen in him in the last year?" I ask her.

Youssif pipes up, reading, "Small feet, big feet."

"Aside from reading and learning English," Keely says as we're both laughing. "I think it's the change in confidence, in his ability to handle himself in social situations. He's worked really hard in saying good morning to his teachers, saying hello back, answering questions and just gaining social confidence."

He's thriving at school, loving the first grade.

"He's amazing," his teacher Mario Daley says. "I work with children of all levels of ability, and Youssif, with what he's gone through, his motivation, what he produces is fantastic. He just tries so hard."

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Before the attack, Zaineb says, Youssif wanted to be a doctor.

Now he says "I want to be a doctor to help burned Iraqi children."

All About Children's Burn FoundationBaghdad

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