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Rescuing Youssif

Aired August 14, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning and welcome to a special edition of SGMD.

Today's show is one that I wanted to do for some time now. It's about a little boy named Youssif. He's become a friend of mine over the past few years. And that's him playing right back there.

In a few minutes, you're going to get a chance to meet him. His story began in Iraq. You know, it's the most unimaginable story that you probably ever heard. It really struck a chord with me as a father and as a journalist and it also struck a chord with you -- millions of CNN viewers all over the world.

Masked men came to his home one day, doused him with kerosene, and literally set him on fire. It's hard to imagine that something like that could happen in this world today, but it did.

The story though is much more about strength and healing. It's about cruelty and courage. It's about a boy who literally rose up from the ashes.

That's a story we're going to tell you today. Let's start at the beginning.


GUPTA (voice-over): Youssif was an outgoing happy boy, a 4-year- old who loved to ride his bicycle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What can I tell you? He was happy all the time.

GUPTA: As 2006 drew to a close, Youssif was starting kindergarten and was eager to learn.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: When his mom asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he used to say, I want to be a doctor. So, he definitely, in terms of his parents, was someone who they hoped would go farther than they did in life. They will say that themselves, "We want our son to go places that we couldn't even dream of."

GUPTA: Youssif and his family didn't dare travel far in Baghdad. Like many parents, Youssif's mother and father kept him close to home, in hopes of keeping him safe. On January 15th, a Monday, Youssif was just outside the front door eating chips and playing. His father was at work. His mother, Zaineb, was inside their small home.

ZAINEB, YOUSSIF'S MOTHER: I heard screaming! I thought someone was quarreling. I came down. I thought something had happened to my husband. I looked and saw my son. I couldn't bear it and I fainted. I was shocked.

I saw him after they put the fire out. There was blood, and there was no skin. I thought he was hit by a car. They told me he was burned.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was at work. Zaineb called me. She didn't say he was burned. She just said, "You must come home urgently."

GUPTA: Youssif's father took Youssif here to Kindi Hospital. Doctors at the Baghdad hospital scraped the dead skin from Youssif's face with no anesthetic, an incredibly painful process.

ZAINEB: At the hospital, he was in a lot of pain. They scrubbed his face, and there was a lot of bleeding. He suffered a lot.

GUPTA: When Youssif returned home after 20 days, he was a different child and not just because of the scarring across much of his young face.

ZAINEB: He was more energetic. And now, he's very sensitive. Now, when kids talk to him he says, "Don't look at me."

GUPTA: Months after the attack, Youssif stood in the spot where he was burned. He said three masked men poured gasoline on him and then set him on fire. "I was burned," Youssif says.

ZAINEB: Who burned you?

YOUSSIF, IRAQI BOY: The ones with the masks.

ZAINEB: What did they dump on you?

YOUSSIF: They lit the match. They dumped the gas. I was burned and they ran away.

ZAINEB: I lie awake at night and cry. I wish I hadn't let him go out of the house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What can I tell you? I can't describe that horrible time. It was awful.

GUPTA: Youssif now spent his days inside his Baghdad home, playing computer games. Youssif told his mother Zaineb his friends shunned him.

ZAINEB: I can't let him go outside and play with the other kids. The other day, they were playing and he was crying. And I asked him, "What's wrong?" He said, "They won't play with me because my face is burned."

GUPTA: Once out going, energetic and happy, Youssif was not withdrawn, sullen, angry. Zaineb described other ways: the old Youssif was gone.

ZAINEB: He gets jealous of everyone. If I say the simplest things to him, he cries. He is sensitive.


GUPTA: Coming up: Youssif's parents look for help close to home and they end up finding it all over the world through the generosity of strangers.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with a special edition of SGMD, devoting our show today to the story of a little Iraqi boy named Youssif. He was horribly burned by these masked gunmen in Baghdad.

It's just hard to understand. Youssif's father did what any dad would do, what I would do, try to get him help. But the insurgency was getting stronger in Baghdad and he just didn't think he'd be able to get the type of medical care that Youssif really needed. He kept banging his head against the wall, really hitting dead ends.

But then the generosity started, and people started donating to Youssif. And their money, their generosity took them from Baghdad to Los Angeles to a leading burn surgeon.


DAMON: His father had been pounding the pavement in Baghdad for about nearly eight months. He happened to be in a store where he heard about CNN, was told that perhaps CNN could help.

GUPTA (voice-over): Just going to the CNN bureau in Baghdad, Youssif's father was risking his life. Youssif's father returned to the CNN bureau four times before a producer, Mohammed, had time to see him. For his safety, we aren't showing his face, either.

MOHAMMED, CNN PRODUCER: And he showed me the first picture of Youssif before the incident, and that smile, I couldn't help myself but to cry. I said, "Oh, my God, this is your son before the incident." I run with this picture to Arwa and Arwa also was like in the middle of something busy. I said, "Arwa, leave everything, look to this picture."

DAMON: And for us, that was it. We were going to do this story, if only for the sole reason of trying to get this kid help.

I was actually really nervous the day before the story went out on TV and then we did a web version of it. I sensed, I thought there would be some sort of a reaction but I didn't know if it would be enough to actually get the family help. I remember the e-mail responses beginning to come to the dotcom version and feeling a little bit of relief but still apprehensive.

And then, all of a sudden, we were flooded -- I mean, was flooded, my inbox was flooded. It was completely and totally overwhelming.

GUPTA: Heartfelt responses came in from all over the world.

ZAINAB SADAT, KARACHI, PAKISTAN: Life's too short to be wasted in hatred and revenge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Youssif's story is a story of hope, inspiration, and courage to all those living out there.

DONG DIMAL, DUBAI, UAE: A heartwarming and hopeful story amidst never ending coverage of the war on terror.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Youssif has touched and changed my life forever. Thank you, CNN, for your continuing coverage of the most moving story I've ever read.

GUPTA: Offers came from a number of charities. And Youssif's parents chose the Children's Burn Foundation to help their son.

BARBARA FRIEDMAN, CHILDREN'S BURN FOUNDATION: This is the purpose of the Children's Burn Foundation, is to help children, like Youssif, whether locally, nationally, or internationally, wherever they may live. So, we immediately called CNN to let them know we wanted to help.

GUPTA: put a link to the charity on its "Impact Your World" webpage, and the donations for Youssif poured in.

WAYNE DRASH, SENIOR PRODUCER, CNN.COM: "Impact Your World" is a Web site on that was created for stories like this, so that people who read a story and want to act and to help an individual or just a charity in general, they can go to and make a difference.

GUPTA: In no time, the charity received more than 13,000 donations, more than $300,000, all for Youssif.

A doctor also stepped up, Dr. Peter Grossman of the Grossman Burn Center in California.

DR. PETER GROSSMAN, GROSSMAN BURN CENTER: Sometimes, a story just hits you, a situation, and you're presented with just get you right in the heart and say, you know what, I want to do something, I want to reach out.

GUPTA: A special visa for Youssif and his family was the last piece of the puzzle.

DAMON: People in the embassy in Baghdad, who are my direct line of contact, were actually amazing. Once they got all of the paperwork, Youssif and his family had their travel documents within two days. And that is unheard of in the past.

It was the most amazing thing to be able to call Youssif's father finally when everything fell into place and say to him: your son is going to America and he's going to get help.


GUPTA: The family is finally en route to the United States -- a lot of hope there, a new beginning. But there was so much more left to do for Youssif.

When we come back -- from Baghdad to a burn center. Stay with us.


GUPTA: You know, Little Youssif just suffered so much. But I can tell you, he taught us all a little something as well -- through the non-stop coverage of the war and terror, he taught us something about hope and spirit. And you, the CNN viewer, and user, really made the next phase of his life possible.


GUPTA (voice-over): Youssif's father called it a journey, from death to life. His mother called it a dream.

From Baghdad to Los Angeles, a 24-hour trip, a world away, and a new begin for Youssif and his family, far from Iraq's violence and uncertain streets.

CNN correspondent Arwa Damon brought Youssif's plight to the world's attention. She made the trip with the family and served at least for the time being as their translator. For Youssif and his family, the every day in their new home seemed extraordinary.

DAMON: She has seen a toaster in cartoons.

GUPTA: There were other slices of Americana, previously only seen in the movies, manicured lawns, a swimming pool, a playground. Another first: Youssif's first doctor's visit with Dr. Peter Grossman.

GROSSMAN: This is not unusual.

GUPTA: Dr. Grossman donated his services and plan to operate on Youssif six times or more in the months ahead -- trying to repair a face savagely burned when masked men in Baghdad doused Youssif with gasoline and set him on fire.

Youssif was a reluctant patient. Perhaps because of the incredibly painful treatment he received in Iraq.

GROSSMAN: You let him know I promise I'm not going to hurt him, OK?

(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) GROSSMAN: If he doesn't mind, I'm going to take a tape measure so that I can see how big that scar is.

Sixteen centimeters. Can he close his eyes really tight? Excellent. Excellent. Youssif, can you open your mouth for me, ah? OK.

GUPTA (on camera): What was it like when you first met Youssif?

GROSSMAN: When I first saw Youssif, I saw a face that I had seen several times before -- a young child, very scared, a glimmer of hope that something could be done but not quite trusting. I knew from that moment that my work was cut out for me, not just from a surgical standpoint but on a human level. How can I get this child to trust me? And right now, we're in the process of that.

GUPTA (voice-over): Grossman scheduled Youssif's first and most important operation for eight days later.

On the trip to the beach, members of a nearby church wanted to help with spiritual healing. The church group recognized Youssif from news stories and asked if they could say a prayer for the boy and his family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they're going to need strength and they're going to need faith and patience.

GUPTA: Youssif's mother Zaineb's wish for her son was more down to earth. She said she just wanted her son's smile back.

And as Youssif played by the water, the first time he or his family had seen the ocean, Zaineb said she saw a glimmer of the old Youssif.


GUPTA: If you asked his parents, that's what they say they wanted. They wanted their son back, their old Youssif.

Coming up: we're going to scrub in on Youssif's first operation. And just minutes from now, you're going to see what Youssif looks like three years later.


GUPTA: Welcome back to the show.

Youssif's parents would bring their 5-year-old son it the United States for burn treatment. Their living expenses, their medical expenses, all of it paid for by the kindness of strangers. But the real question: how would Youssif do?

We check in with the operation fast approaching.


GROSSMAN: Good morning.

GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Grossman made a final visit with Youssif and his family before surgery.

GROSSMAN: This is my daddy and he's going to help us with making you better, too.

GUPTA: Accompanying him was his father, Dr. Richard Grossman, who would also be taking part in the surgery, and who inspired his son to follow in his footsteps.

GROSSMAN: My dad started the burn center in 1969 and just an incredible role model, someone who gives of themselves and the reward that you can get from giving. I'm very lucky. I have a nice job. I make a nice living and I love what I do.

But there's no amount of money that can replace that smile on somebody's face and that thanks that they give you. When I was a kid, I used to see them doing that to my dad and I said, "I want that."

I'm going to take good care of him, like he is my own boy.

GUPTA: Dr. Grossman let me scrub in to observe. He showed me how he hopes to undo much of what an unspeakably cruel act has done to this boy.

GROSSMAN: We'll basically be excising this thickened scar tissue around here.

GUPTA: He planned to remove scar tissue from around Youssif's nose and insert tissue expanders, small balloons under the healthy skin in Youssif's cheek and neck.

Over time, Dr. Grossman hoped to stretch the healthy skin so it could replace the heavy scars on Youssif's chin, jaw line, and next to his ear.

GROSSMAN: Now, it's time to operate.

GUPTA (on camera): All right.


GUPTA (voice-over): Three and a half hours after it began, the operation was over.

(on camera): So, how did things go?

GROSSMAN: I was pretty pleased how things went today. We were able to accomplish all that we had had set our mind to and everything went off without a hitch. And for a first-stage operation, I was pretty happy. Hopefully, it will continue along this course.


GUPTA: In fact, Youssif had 15 operations. And, three years later, what does he look like? We are about to meet him.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: Youssif's parents came to the United States with one suitcase and a dream that their son would finally get the medical care that he needed. And Youssif used to tell me that he wanted to go back to Baghdad to play with his cousins and play with his friends once his face was fixed, as he put it. But their fears about Iraq grew over time, and three years later, they're still right here in Los Angeles.


GUPTA: So, I literally have not seen Youssif for almost three years now, 2 1/2 years. Let's go take a look and see how he's doing.

Hey, how you doing? Good to see you. How you doing?


GUPTA: Can we come in and see your house? Let's go take a look.

So, this is your place. Want to introduce me to everybody?

YOUSSIF: This is my mom.


YOUSSIF: And that's my dad and that's my sister. She's shy.

GUPTA (voice-over): And Youssif has a new baby brother, Mustafa. He's 2 months old.

(on camera): And how is school for you?


GUPTA: What did you learn?

YOUSSIF: I learned times and a little division.

GUPTA: What's six times two?

YOUSSIF: Twelve.

GUPTA: All right!

(voice-over): When I talked to Youssif, it was amazing to me what a typical 8-year-old boy he had become.

YOUSSIF: The skin is the hardest.

GUPTA: A third-grader with friends who likes video games, pizza, SpongeBob. I was wondering if Youssif was aware of how far he'd come. I asked if he'd like to look at pictures of his progress. He said he would.

(on camera): What do you see? What can you tell me?

YOUSSIF: I used to have this.

GUPTA: You used to have this.

YOUSSIF: And I used to have -- like this was red.

GUPTA: This was all red in here? What else?

YOUSSIF: And my ear like I could see that.

GUPTA: Talking about over here?


GUPTA: I heard you had over 12 surgeries.

YOUSSIF: Fifteen.

GUPTA: Fifteen? Wow. Was that scary for you?


GUPTA: And for that you get used to it? You want them to do anything else?

YOUSSIF: I want to make them fix this here.

GUPTA: Your ear?

GROSSMAN: Youssif has a pretty good understanding for a young boy as to what he's going through and how he is and will always be somewhat different than other children because of the disfigurement that he has from his burn injuries. But he's also been able to take with him a sense of accomplishment, "Look what I've gone through," and "I can survive."

YOUSSIF: She's good.

GUPTA (voice-over): The United States government has granted Youssif and his family asylum. That means they can remain in the United States.

(on camera): How did you decide to stay?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because I see my kids getting used to live here. They speak English more than Arabic. And there, the situation is still not safe to go there.

GUPTA: As we're shooting this interview we're not showing your face. After all these years, you're still worried about that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I still have family in Iraq. I don't want anyone to get hurt. GUPTA: You're worried that if they see your face on TV, that there might be some violence against your family?


GUPTA: Why would somebody do that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no idea why. Like until now, they have done so many things, killing people -- so many things.

GUPTA (voice-over): So many things, like deliberately burning an innocent child. Youssif hasn't let what happened to him diminish his spirit, or his dreams.

(on camera): Last time we got together, you said you wanted to be a doctor one day. You remember that? You still want to be a doctor?


GUPTA: Really? Why do you want to be a doctor?

YOUSSIF: So I can help people.

GUPTA: That's good. Are you liking it here in America?


GUPTA (voice-over): Once a victim, Youssif now hopes to help other others. He's truly a remarkable boy. He's also an inspiration for so many people.

YOUSSIF: You tricked me!

GUPTA (on camera): I did not trick you!

YOUSSIF: Yes, you did!

GUPTA: How did I trick you?


GUPTA: Such an incredible story. Youssif, you're such a brave boy. I'm a better soccer player though, right?

Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.