Maryville church opens arms to Iraqi girl with birth defect
By John Gordon
MARYVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) Ghofran Alyass traveled from Iraq to Tennessee for surgery she hopes will give her more years with her family.
Along the way, she found her family growing as she developed a special bond with a new "sister."
Ghofran, 10, became fast friends with Samantha Ousley, 8. Samantha's family is hosting Ghofran and her parents while they are in the United States.
"I'm very happy," says Ghofran, who was born with spina bifida. "Samantha, my sister."
Samantha, an only child, found a new international playmate.
"It really felt good because before, I was lonely and I really didn't have anybody to play with, except at school," she says.
The friendship between the two girls developed after Samantha's father, Ted Ousley, started a campaign to bring Ghofran and her parents to Tennessee. Ousley, a radio personality known to his listeners as Gunner on WIVK in Knoxville, learned of Ghofran's plight while embedded with American troops in Iraq.
Ousley's church, First Maryville United Methodist. took up the cause and raised $10,000 to cover the family's travel and other expenses.
"Helping a family is a huge thing because, you know, word will spread," Ousley says. "You don't do it at the point of a gun, and I think we're realizing that more and more."
The Rev. Brenda Carroll, co-pastor at the Maryville church, says even with the surgery, Ghofran will not be able to walk, but the procedure should extend her life and allow her better mobility in a wheelchair.
"Once you ever see Ghofran the first time, there's never any question that you're going to do everything you can to help that child," Carroll says. "We want to help that family to have this precious child in their midst for as long as they possibly can."
Members of a children's Sunday school class at First UMC made a blanket to keep Ghofran warm and give her reassurance thousands of miles away from the war in Iraq.
"You know that there's a lot going on (in Iraq), bombs are going off and stuff," says Elizabeth Morton, 10, a fourth-grader who worked on the blanket. "And just to help her, to comfort her with blankets and stuff, makes me feel good inside."
Ghofran has never attended school in Iraq because of her medical condition, but with Samantha's help, she learned the English alphabet. Ghofran also taught Samantha how to count in Arabic.
"I feel all the people like me and love me," Ghofran says through an interpreter. "Thank you for this family. Thanks."
Samantha says she hopes the surgery will be successful and help her new friend lead a better life when the family returns to Iraq.
"I would feel really sad if she really didn't get better. I really want her to get better," she says. Ghofran's father, Abdul, says he has seen his daughter smile more since her arrival in the United States.
"She's different now, she's different," he says. "I am very happy because I can see the future for my daughter."
Ghofran's surgery was scheduled for April 11 at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. The operation was expected to last about 17 hours.
Spina bifida is a birth defect caused when the spine does not close completely. Researchers are not sure what causes the disorder.
Members of the surgical team are donating their time to help Ghofran. A foundation is also covering hospital expenses, so there will be no cost to the family.
Samantha's mother, Laura Ousley, says the friendship between the two girls has given Samantha "a different way of looking at life."
"She (Ghofran) has enriched our lives," Mrs. Ousley says. "She's shown us that, no matter what your situation is, what matters is what's in your heart. She's got a big heart."
Ghofran's new friends are also hoping she will be able to attend school after she returns to Iraq.
"She's a smart little girl, and she's never been able to go to school," Rev. Carroll says. "We certainly pray that could happen for Ghofran."
Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.