Guest blogger Elissa Montanti, founder of Global Medical Relief Fund for Childrenand co-author along with Jennifer Haupt of I'll Stand by You: One Woman's Mission to Heal the Children of the World.
“Why do you do this?” People ask me that question all the time.
It’s been 14 years since I launched Global Medical Relief Fund, a little charity I run out of a former walk-in closet in my Staten Island townhouse. Fourteen years of answering emails from Bosnia, Iraq, and Africa in the middle of the night. Fourteen years of spending most of my paycheck to bring one more child here for a new leg or arm—a new life. Eleven years since I left my ordinary nine-to-five job as a medical assistant in order to do anything and everything but the ordinary. During this time I’ve given up sleep, any hope of a vacation, and my marriage. (Not to mention a place to hang my clothes!)
I’ve given up a lot, so I understand the question. But look what I’ve gained.
When 14-year-old Kenan Malkic arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport with his mother in November 1997, the first thing he said to me after hello was, “I like your shoes.” He was used to looking down to avoid the stares of pity and wonder. More than anything, he just wanted to be an ordinary kid again. Normal.
After five years of battling near-debilitating depression and panic attacks, I knew some of what this child was feeling. I knew it had been a long, hard journey for him to get here.
In September 1994, three years earlier, Kenan had been playing soccer with some friends in a designated safe zone: a protected valley hidden away from the hills surrounding the small town of Maglaj, Bosnia, where snipers were hiding. After two years, war had become a way of life. During the quiet periods—like now—people came up from their protected basements to run errands or just get some fresh air. It was a brief chance for children to be kids again.
Kenan, a tall, wiry boy built for playing goalie, lunged to catch the ball soaring toward him but missed. He didn’t think twice about running to retrieve it from a patch of tall grass at the edge of the field. As he reached for the ball, he felt the force first in his mouth, then his chest, as he was knocked to the ground. Laying facedown in the dirt, shocked and numb, the taste of blood and gunpowder in his mouth, he heard shouting, screaming.
When Kenan got to the hospital, the doctors in the emergency room were shouting as people were ripping off his soccer jersey and jeans: “Find some anesthesia! Cut up some sheets if there’s no gauze—we need something to stop the bleeding.”
Don’t let me die, just don’t let me die, Kenan prayed as he sunk into unconsciousness. Meanwhile, his mother was in the waiting room, desperately praying for her only child. Doctors told her that they weren’t sure that he would ever wake up again.
When Kenan did wake up a few days later, his eyes crusted shut by the blast, his body scarred and encased in pain, he could feel that he had lost both of his arms and a leg. “There is no future,” he told his mother flatly. “Put me back to sleep again.”
It didn’t take long for me to find out that not only was I helping Kenan by taking him into my Staten Island home for four months while he was fitted for state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs he couldn’t get in his own country, but he was also helping me. This has been the case with each of the more than 150 children from around the globe I’ve taken into my home and my life since Kenan’s first trip here.
There’s a story, “The Starfish Thrower,” that goes something like this: A man is walking along the beach and notices a woman going back and forth, again and again, between the water and the sand. As he gets closer, he stops and laughs: This crazy woman is actually picking up the starfish stranded on the beach, one by one, and tossing them back into the ocean. “Lady, look, there are thousands of miles of beach and God only knows how many of those little creatures,” he says, shaking his head. “One person can’t possibly make much of a difference in saving them.”
The woman stoops down to pick up a glistening purple starfish, dusts it off, and gently casts it back into the waves, then turns to the man and smiles. “It sure made a difference to that one!”
I am that crazy woman. And the injured children I bring to the United States for a new limb and a new smile are like the starfish. They come to me mostly through emails from soldiers serving in Iraq, reporters covering a tsunami in Indonesia or an earthquake in Pakistan, doctors and humanitarian aid workers who can’t ignore a desperate plea from a mother in Haiti or Libya. All of these people are searching for the same thing I found when I saw a photo of Kenan, lying in his hospital bed after the land mine accident that left him missing three limbs. Incredibly, I was certain that I could help him even though I was going through the darkest period of my own life. The people who bring these kids to me are also looking to gently pick up one beautiful, shining starfish and toss it back into the ocean, where it can begin life again.
Sometimes it truly takes a global village to help one child. I found 15-year-old Ali Ameer in a hot, crowded hospital room in Basra, Iraq, not long after the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad in March 2003. When he waved his bandaged arm in the air and smiled at me from across the room, it was like a big, wonderful magnet. I sat on his bed, showing him my photo album with photos of Kenan playing basketball, cooking breakfast, and typing on the computer with—and without—his prosthetic leg and two prosthetic arms. A doctor told me that Ali’s hand had been blown off when, while helping his father to sell gasoline at the marketplace, the boy picked up a shiny object: a land mine. Ali pointed to a photo of Kenan drinking from a cup with his new hands, then he held up his own arm that ended in a stump, pointing to himself with his other hand. The look in his eyes was so hopeful. How could I say no?
It took a year of untangling red tape in Iraq and the United States; doctors in Kuwait, Basra, and Philadelphia; and a 7-year-old girl in Virginia who rallied her Girl Scout troop and second grade class to write letters to their congressman (among others) to bring Ali here for a prosthetic hand. And Kenan, who was living with me and going to college by this time, was with him every step of the way—from doctor visits, to showing him how to manipulate the robotic limb, to playing soccer and basketball. Ali opened the door for dozens of other injured children from Iraq to come to Staten Island to heal, and helping him made me stronger, too. If I could force open all of the doors trying to shut in my face over the year it took to secure permission to bring him here, I could battle my own demons, which were still floating to the surface. I couldn’t do it for myself, but I could do it for the growing number of kids who needed my help.
Kenan has been living with me now for more than fourteen years, and Ali has visited three times since he’s outgrown his original prosthetic hand. All of the children who have come here—multiple times as they grow and need new prosthetics—have become part of my global family. The love I have for these kids and they have for each other is bigger than anything I could have ever imagined. It is surely bigger than my walk-in closet in Staten Island. It is as big as the world.
So, why do I do this?
How can I not?
(Excerpt from I'll Stand by You: One Woman's Mission to Heal the Children of the World
(c) 2012 by Elissa Montanti with Jennifer Haupt. Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.