NEW YORK — Almost a year after the Iraq war began, Ahmed Sharif, then just 6 years old, had a strange feeling as he walked home from school on an empty Baghdad street.
"It was quite scary to walk alone on that street which was completely deserted, apart from a group of American soldiers who were pointing their guns at me," said the now 15-year-old Sharif.
Then, a bomb exploded, tearing off his right arm and blinding him.
But Sharif became one of a few victims of the now decade-long war who was sent to the United States for medical care, with the help of American-based aid organizations. He is one of still fewer who has started a new life here.
New life in New York
Sharif found his way to the United States after his elder brother, Saad, registered him with a U.S. military treatment center in Baghdad in early 2004. From there his case was referred to the New York-based Global Medical Relief Fund, an nonprofit organization that provides treatment for young victims of war, natural disaster or illness.
Global Medical Relief Fund, based in New York, together with the Los Angeles-based Assyrian Medical Society, have brought about 50 war-affected Iraqi children to America for medical care.
"I heard about his case and I immediately flew to bring him to the U.S.," said Elissa Montanti, the 59-year-old founder of the Global Medical Relief fund. "I just felt his darkness, but he has a sense of humor, and that hope inspired me to help him."
Since its inception in 1997, the fund has helped 160 children from 22 different countries receive medical treatment. Afterwards some have resettled permanently in the United States, Canada or Europe, while others have returned to their home countries.
"We don't want to help more than eight to nine kids [in a year] because we want to treat our kids like family, not numbers," said Montanti whose organization is mainly funded through private donors.
Courtesy Ahmed Sharif
Ahmed Sharif, right, with his best friend Ngawang Tsestin, left, in New York recently.
The Iraq war had a devastating effect on Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi government estimates that 239,133 Iraqi nationals were injured from 2004 through 2011 due to "terrorism and acts of violence." But the severe shortage of physicians in Iraq means that many victims of the war have not gotten adequate medical attention.
While 34,000 physicians were registered with the Iraqi Medical Association in the 1990s, by 2008 there were only around 16,000 for the country of 31 million, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Due to his extreme disabilities, Sharif relocated to New York full-time and Montanti became his legal guardian so he could stay in the country.
He now goes to school to study braille, the language for the blind, among other classes. While Montati takes care of his basic needs, he lives with other kids receiving medical treatment in a four-bedroom house funded by the charity.
His best friend is his housemate Ngawang Tsestin, 15, who lost both arms in an accident in his native Tibet. Sharif is never expected to see again but, that has not stopped him from playing the piano and singing.
And he gets help from Tsestin.
"I am his hands and he is my eyes," says Sharif. "Whenever we watch a movie, he narrates it to me. And he helps me with walking on the road so that I don't run into people."
'Gave me hope'
On the West coast, the Los Angeles-based Assyrian Medical Society has helped 300 children from different countries, many from Iraq, receive medical treatment.
Samer Butrus was 12-year-old when he lost his left leg and was severely injured in his right leg after a bomb exploded on his family’s farm in northern Iraq. After waiting more than four years for medical help, Butrus's dad connected with a local representative of the society and he was sent to the United States for care in 2008.
"It's hard to live away from my family and friends, but if I were in Iraq, my life there would have been limited to a wheelchair," Butrus said in a telephone interview.
Now 21 years old, he is now studying business and aspires to be an accountant in Windsor, Canada, where he lives with his mother after being granted asylum there.
"I was in search of hope after my injury and that's exactly what the society gave me. They gave me hope of a better life," said Butrus. "Whatever happened is behind me, my leg won’t come back, every day is a new day now."