Khaled the superhero
When we first met 10-year-old Khaled, his face was scrunched up in concentration as he coloured in the bricks of the house he drew. He struggled slightly with the far end of the page but quickly readjusted the paper and resumes colouring in the red brick roof.
He lifted up the sleeve of his writing arm to show us his burn scar. “When I draw for a long time it starts to hurt here,” he told us, pointing at his elbow.
Khaled’s right arm was stuck at a bent position for almost four years after he fell into a pot of boiling water that had been placed on the floor of his house in Syria. He sustained burns all over his upper body from the boiling water, including on his chest, neck, and both arms.
Khaled’s mother Najah rushed him to a hospital where he began treatment for his burns. She was told to take him to Damascus to continue his treatment, but before she could do so, Syria erupted with violence. The house where Najah and her three sons lived was completely destroyed, and the family fled to Lebanon by foot through a mountainous path, where they eventually settled in an informal tented settlement.
In Lebanon, Khaled was unable to continue to treatment for his burns, which required grafting. The burn scars soon formed as hard and dry ropes across his upper body, and, in addition to fixing his arm in a bent position, pulled across his shoulders, bending his back, and restricting the movement of his neck. If left untreated, the scars would have caused Khaled’s back to become permanently hunched as he grew.
“My heart aches watching him sit and eat when he can’t even reach across the table with his arms,” his mother told us. “It hurts to watch.”
As well as cutting short Khaled’s treatment before it was completed, the war in Syria and the family’s subsequent refugee status took a great toll on the family, who had already lost their father nearly eight years previously in a tractor accident. With their house and all their belongings, including their ID cards, left behind and destroyed, the family now lives off of the little assistance offered by refugee agencies and NGOs and from the $7 a day earned by Khaled’s mother harvesting tomatoes and other crops on Lebanese farmers’ land.
'We always tell him he's a hero'
But despite their deprivation, the family still make the most of their situation. Najah has made sure that Khaled and his brothers are all able to go to school, and Khaled is now learning how to read and write in both Arabic and French. The family support and care for each other and Khaled’s older and younger brother provide a lot of the supportive environment for him.
“We always tell him he’s a hero and can do anything he wants to do, despite his burns, despite everything,” his mother told us. “The boys are crazy about each other, and would fight for and defend each other until the very end.”
The surgery Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah provided for Khaled released his burn scars and allows Khaled his full range of movement throughout his body once again. This means that he can stand up straight, write and draw without any pain, and that he will grow up without any further functions being restricted.
Khaled was able to come to us and the American University Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC) thanks to the kindness of the NGO Beyond, who coordinated transportation to and from Khaled's house.