Dr. Jay Johannigman opened the back door of the Iraqi ambulance. Inside was a boy. His abdomen was ripped open. His left eye was missing. Both hands – blown off.
A veteran of two Gulf wars, the surgeon at Tallil Air Base near Nasiriya has seen casualties this horrific many times. Few survived. Remarkably, this child was still speaking.
“Mister, I need water,” 9-year-old Saleh Khalaf said politely in Arabic.
On Oct. 10, 2003, Saleh walked home from school. He picked up something he thought was toy ball. Seconds later, it exploded.
An international medical effort was launched to save the boy’s life. In Iraq, doctors with the U.S. Air Force performed emergency surgery before sending the boy to Children’s Hospital Oakland for treatment.
“The hospital called a press conference the day after Saleh arrived from Iraq,” said reporter Meredith May. “I waited until the news pack left and asked for a private meeting in his hospital room. The interview left me shaken, and even though I couldn’t communicate in Arabic with the father, I knew I would become his son’s storyteller.”
May wrote Saleh’s story into a four-part series titled “Operation Lion Heart.” May and Chronicle photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice visited Saleh and his father, Raheem, every week for 14 months, following their recovery and settlement in the Bay Area.
“The hardest thing was dealing with the ethical issues that arose after insurgents back in Iraq saw Saleh’s story on CNN,” said May. “They thought the only reason an Iraqi child would be getting this much American charity was because the boy’s father must be a spy. The insurgents went to Saleh’s Iraqi home and threatened his mother, sending her and her three babies into hiding.”
Eventually, the entire family was granted asylum and reunited in the United States. May and Fitzmaurice flew to the Middle East to document the family’s journey and reunion with Saleh.
“Don’t listen to what anybody tells you about journalism as a career – that you won’t make money, that jobs are too competitive at the big papers or that no one respects the big, bad media anymore. They’re just jealous,” said May. “Journalism will let you travel the world, meet exciting people and learn a new thing every day. And if you’re lucky, your words can get a bad guy fired or help a poor kid find justice.”
By the end of Operation Lion Heart, Saleh was speaking English, operating a prosthetic hand and attending school. His father, Raheem, continued to adjust to life in America.
He looked at his son and saw a miracle.
Years from now, when Saleh would be old enough to understand, Raheem would explain how strong he was in the hospital and how his resilience gave Raheem the strength to make it through the ordeal. … If Saleh had the courage to survive a blast, then Raheem had the courage to navigate a strange land.