In Kim Dees’ office there is a map of Iraq on the wall and a file on his computer desktop titled “Getting Hajer Back.”
For two years, returning 8-year-old Hajer Yousif to the United States from Iraq has been the focus of a frustrating and, so far, futile mission by Mr. Dees. But he persists in trying to get the child and her family out of the Baghdad slum where they cannot get the medical care Hajer needs.
“I’ll never give up,” said Mr. Dees, a physician’s assistant in Cleveland, Tenn. “A lot of people say I’m wasting my time, but it’s my time.”
Mr. Dees, a retired Tennessee Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, first met Hajer and her family in 2005, during his deployment to Iraq with the 278th Regimental Combat Team.
Hoping American doctors could correct a birth defect that had left the girl with a colostomy, Mr. Dees helped arrange for Hajer to come to Tennessee with her mother in January 2006. The surgery in a Knoxville hospital ended in crushing disappointment when surgeons discovered on the operating table that Iraqi doctors had cut off all but a few inches of the child’s colon.
Hajer returned to Iraq in February 2006 with an improved colostomy and a supply of bags. But the two years since have been difficult, Mr. Dees said. Hajer’s family struggles to get the colostomy bags she needs, and they have to wash and reuse the disposable bags. Streets in their Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad are strewn with garbage and run with sewage, Mr. Dees said.
“She has to take a bath in a washtub,” Mr. Dees said. “How good is that for a patient with a colostomy?”
The water quality is dismal, and lack of water is a constant problem, wrote Salam Yousif, Hajer’s father, in a recent e-mail to Mr. Dees.
“No drinking water is available, and people are getting sick more and more because of the water supply,” he wrote.
Mr. Dees said he would like to send the family medical and other supplies, but the packages disappear long before they reach their destination.
“The mail is ripped off,” he said. “We sent a dummy package to an address for them, and it never got there.”
In his quest to bring Hajer and her family permanently to the United States, Mr. Dees has been in touch with members of Congress and the State Department, but has found no help. He has contacted Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga, but the family would need to travel to a refugee camp to qualify for help through that organization.
“If a family is in their country, there’s really no mechanism for (bringing them here),” Bridges Director Anne Curtis said. “There are so many people in other countries that would give almost their life to come here, but it just doesn’t work that way.”
Every week, Mr. Dees and Mr. Yousif exchange e-mails. Last month, Mr. Yousif, who enlists the help of friends and family to translate his message into English, wrote to Mr. Dees that he had met an official in the Iraqi government who appeared willing to help him.
“I told all about Hajer case, and he promise me to do his best efforts to help me, but he asked me if there is any one in the U.S.A. that will help me there,” he wrote.
Mr. Dees said Mr. Yousif’s dogged persistence has long been Hajer’s best hope. In 2005, Mr. Yousif brought his daughter to a medical clinic in Balad Ruz, northeast of Baghdad, to see if American medical workers could help her. Mr. Dees thought surgery could help Hajer, so he spent nine months battling bureaucracy and finding people willing to help Hajer and her mother travel to the U.S.
“We had to figure out what we needed to do,” Mr. Dees said. “We had to get permission from the country for her to leave.”
Mr. Yousif was incredibly tenacious, coming each week to the clinic to check on the progress of their efforts. At one point, when Mr. Dees had grown discouraged, he gave him a bit of stern advice.
“He said, ‘You don’t give up,’” Mr. Dees said. “He was so persistent. He’s done some gutsy things.”
After all he has seen Hajer and her family endure, Mr. Dees said, the child has become like a family member to him.
“Usually you try to keep yourself separated from your patients, but her little face,” he said. “She’s a tough little kid to be able to go through all that and still be able to smile.”