After about four months apart, 2-year-old Dilbireen Muhsin soon may be reunited with his family. The Yazidi boy, whose name means ‘wounded heart’ in Kurdish, was brought to the United States late last year to receive medical treatment for severe burns on his face.
He was left in the care of a Michigan woman while his parents and newborn brother were in their native Iraq, trying to be by Dilbireen’s side and, mostly recently, facing President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Now, Dilbireen’s parents and brother have been issued visas to come to the United States, a joyous turn of events for a family that has experienced suffering.
“We have confirmation that they have visas in hand, which is great news, and so now we’re organizing travel for them to come to Boston and organizing for Dilbireen to come to Boston from Michigan and resume his treatment,” said Scott LaStaiti, a Los Angeles-based film producer and philanthropist who helped get Dilbireen medical care.
“It’s both exciting, because the family will be reunited, and very important, because now he can resume the treatment that he is desperately in need of.”
“The plight of his people”
Dilbireen was one of many Yazidi children needing medical attention when LaStaiti traveled to northern Iraq with Sally Becker, founder of the UK-based charity Road to Peace, in 2015. They traveled to northern Iraq to visit sick and orphaned Yazidi children whose families had fled their homes due to ISIS attacks and were staying at camps for internally displaced persons, Becker said.
The US declared last year that ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq. Iraqi diplomat Breen Tahseen, son of Yazidi leader Prince Tahseen Bek, invited Becker to visit the camps, where she came face-to-face with many children in need of serious medical attention they couldn’t receive in the surrounding region.
“I arranged to meet with members of Parliament to discuss the possibility of bringing some of the children to Britain but, with a referendum on Brexit looming, it was clear that this was not a priority,” Becker said. In the meantime, her colleague Dr. Shirzad Khaleel, medical coordinator for Road to Peace, gathered names and medical reports for the children.
Khaleel wrote, in an email, although he has no money to give to the children, he worked as volunteer to help them. “There were hundreds of cases, but we had to identify which of them would benefit most from treatment abroad, and top of the list was Dilbireen,” Becker said. Dilbireen had been severely burned last year when a heater malfunctioned, exploded and set his crib ablaze.
His mother, Flosa Khalaf, was baking bread outside to celebrate Dilbireen’s first birthday when the fire erupted. Flames from the heater severely burned Dilbireen’s face and feet, but a blanket protected the rest of his body. To this day, Dilbireen enjoys cuddling with blankets.
“Born in a camp where his parents have been living since fleeing their home on Sinjar mountain, this amazing and resilient little boy is a symbol of the suffering of the Yazidis and other religious minorities in the region,” Becker said.
“The Yazidis have been victims of many genocides over the centuries, and there are only around 800,000 left in the world. So, this mission isn’t just about helping Dilbireen. It’s about highlighting the plight of his people.”
Dilbireen’s “remarkable spirit”
Becker and LaStaiti were able to secure treatment for Dilbireen and a few other children at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Boston, with help from Sameer Sabir, a Boston-based entrepreneur in the field of wound healing and burn treatment.
Sabir and LaStaiti met through Greg Bailey, a business partner of LaStaiti’s who has also been instrumental in helping Dilbireen. “I acted as a conduit to help these guys connect to the folks at Boston Shriners, who are amazing people,” Sabir said. “It really does sort of take a village to make something like this happen, even for one child.”
In October, Dilbireen and his father, Ajeel Muhsin, flew from Iraq to the United States for Dilbireen’s first round of surgeries. Dilbireen’s mother stayed in Iraq, as she was due to give birth to Dilbireen’s brother in November.
Doctors in Boston first saw Dilbireen on October 6 and developed a treatment plan that included a series of surgeries to restore his facial appearance and function, such as being able to open and close his mouth.
Muhsin planned to return to Iraq for the baby’s birth, and then the family together would travel to the US for Dilbireen’s additional surgeries. They would return to Iraq once Dilbireen was completely treated. News about Dilbireen spread across the Yazidi community in the United States.
Saman Ali, a 31-year-old Yazidi, was eager to help when he heard about how Muhsin and Dilbireen needed an interpreter while they were in Boston for the boy’s first round of surgeries. Ali graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a master’s degree in law in 2015.
He drove seven or eight hours from State College, Pennsylvania to Boston to help Muhsin and Dilbireen with translations, Becker said. “He was a blessing in disguise. I don’t know how we could have managed without him,” said Tatyana Goldwyn, widow of plastic surgeon Robert Goldwyn, who helped raise funds and find housing for Muhsin and Dilbireen in Boston.
She is based in the greater Boston area and continues to help Dilbireen’s family. “The father was a very young man and was alone here, and the child had been traumatized by the separation from his mother,” Goldwyn said. “We found an apartment that was donated during their stay. We provided everything from toothpaste to formula, you name it.”
The organization House of Peace also has helped provide housing for Dilbireen and his father. Ron Burkle, an American investor and philanthropist, made a generous donation to help Dilbireen and his family, LaStaiti, the film producer, said.
LaStaiti added he made the connection to Burkle through British film producer Lex Lutzus, who helped raise funds. “For a child who has been through so much, he has such a remarkable spirit and was always smiling and always happy, which was just very uplifting, actually,” Sabir said of Dilbireen.
In November, Dilbireen moved to Lansing, Michigan to stay with Adlay Kejjan, director of the Yazidi American Women Organization, while he recovered after his first round of surgeries. Muhsin, the boy’s father, traveled to Iraq to be with Khalaf while she gave birth to Dilbireen’s brother on November 9.
The family named the baby Trump. “America is helping us to do surgery on our boy,” Muhsin said in an interview from Iraq two weeks ago. His comments were translated from Kurdish. “We want to show our appreciation to America for what they are doing for our boy.” Then, chaos and confusion erupted.
A young family to be reunited
When Muhsin and Khalaf applied for a passport and visa for baby Trump to travel to the US to see his brother last month, their application was denied, and then the visas they already had were revoked.
Though Trump was not in office when Dilbireen’s family was initially denied visas, the executive order that was signed January 27 to keep certain people from entering the country had the family worried.
The order indicated immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia – were unable to enter the country for at least the next 90 days. Dilbireen’s parents submitted new applications to the US consulate in Erbil, Iraq but, when they arrived at the consulate for an appointment last week, they were refused entry.
Then, this week, they were granted their visas. “His mom, Flosa, and his father, Ajeel, and his baby brother, Trump, were granted their visas at the US consulate in Erbil, and they did walk out yesterday with visas actually stamped in their passports,” LaStaiti said Monday.
All three visas for Muhsin, Khalaf and baby Trump have been approved, a spokeswoman for Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office said Monday. The Michigan Democrat’s office confirmed it received information from the State Department the visas were approved this week.
Meanwhile, Kejjan, a paramedic and pilot in Michigan who is also Yazidi, is continuing to care for Dilbireen until his family arrives in the US. “If he was older, he would definitely say ‘I want my parents, my mom and dad.’
He’s so young, and he doesn’t understand,” Kejjan said in an exclusive interview with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta two weeks ago.
“It takes a village”
LaStaiti, the film producer, and Becker, founder of Road to Peace, both said they are grateful for Kejjan and many others who have helped Dilbireen along this journey.
“This experience has definitely been bigger than any one person. It’s fair to use that expression, it takes a village,” LaStaiti said.
“I hope we can create a sustainable model so that resources are readily available for these children in need. I hope that now that we have made these contacts and connections on both the fund-raising side and on the hospital side, it will be easier to place kids as we identify them.”
It cost about $15,000 and involved dozens of people to arrange treatment for Dilbireen and reunite him with his family, Becker said. “I have been doing this since 1993, when I found injured kids in the besieged city of Mostar. Back then, it was Christians and Muslims. Now, it’s the Yazidis,” she said.
“Race or religion is irrelevant to me. These are innocent victims of a war, not of their making and beyond their understanding.” Many other refugee children in Iraq are in need of specialized medical attention, said Becker, who has identified about 87.
Becker said she is working with local partners, the Heraion Foundation, to open a children’s hospital in northern Iraq so children will no longer need to travel around the world for specialized medical attention. Becker said her inspiration comes from children like Dilbireen.
BY NADIA JUDITH ENCHASSI