The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

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Posted by vmsalama on October 30, 2005

by Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt  

CAIRO – Hamida Ali is, in many ways, a typical 9-year old.  She loves to draw.  She enjoys playing with dolls.  She likes to fix her hair.  Still, this young Iraqi girl has endured hardships unimaginable to most adults, let alone children. 

            Even beyond having to live in the war-torn nation, Hamida has come to Egypt on a personal crusade – a fight to live.  Amid the bombings, power-outages and constant hostility in which most Iraqis struggle to find normalcy, a few individuals, both in her homeland and in Egypt, have given this child an inkling of hope that she might live to have a bright future.

            Hamida has a rare condition called hypomagnesia, an abnormal lack of magnesium in the neuronal cells, the impulse-conducting cells that constitute the brain, spinal column, and nerves.  As a result, she experiences convulsions, often more than a dozen times per day, and full-blown seizures several times a week.  What is particularly urgent about Hamida’s case is that three of her seven siblings have died from the condition, two of them were about Hamida’s age when they passed on. 

            Still, she takes her condition with a grain of salt, clinging to her father’s waist the moment she feels the sensation of an on-coming attack.  The frequent convulsions, which first began when she was three months old, last for about a minute, whereby she then goes back to play, without a care.  The more severe seizures often leave her temporarily handicapped, too weary to function.  She is far too enthralled with her “vacation” in Egypt to discuss her health, however, noting her favorite thing about the country is electricity – a luxury in much of Iraq nowadays.


            It is Hamida’s father, Ali, once a soldier in Saddam Hussein’s army and former prisoner of war, who tells of the pains of losing three daughters to this rare illness, and how his family is prepared to do whatever it takes to save Hamida from the same fate. 

“We went to the hospital and they did all kinds of investigations and blood tests, checking calcium or potassium,” he explains.  “In 1994, the fourth one died.  Our first two children died also.  The third child was ok, but then fourth died when she was ten years old.  At that time, I sent four letters to Saddam, the criminal, asking his help.”

Ali, already bitter with the former Iraqi government for, as he explains, unjustly throwing him into prison for illegal possession of a weapon, became even more disenfranchised having to beg the regime he hates for help – and not receiving it. 

“I was trying to get somebody who can raise my voice to the government so they can take care of her case,” he says.  “I wrote to the Ministry of Health about my financial situation and the condition of Hamida and how rare her condition is, but I didn’t get a good response from them.  The bureaucracy was very bad.  I wrote some letters to the Saudi hospital asking them if they can accept treating my daughter.  But there was no answer.  Also I contacted the government hospital in Baghdad but the expenses to go to Baghdad were too much.”

            Having to support a wife and four children, including Hamida, Ali found the expenses too much to bare.  Earning a monthly salary equivalent to $15, the family would begin making sacrifices, dedicated most of their money to young Hamida’s health care as a priority.  “The expenses were a burden.  Recently, we sold our house.  Every time I use to go to Baghdad, it took one day to go, one day to come – and then of course, add several days to stay there, so it was so expensive.  I use to sell everything in my apartment, even my wife’s clothes trying to get money for the treatment.”

            Now living with his wife’s family in Baghdad, Hamida, her parents and three siblings all live in one small room – a small price to pay, they say, if it means being closer to the best health care in Iraq.  The country’s dynamic changed drastically upon the invasion of coalition forces.  For Ali and his family, it was a blessing in disguise since military forces bring with them foreign doctors and international attention.

            “I contacted the Human Rights Association of Babylon,” he recalls.  “A Kuwaiti-based team of American doctors visited southern Iraq, in our neighborhood – Hella.  I took Hamida to them.  The human rights organization told the doctors that Hamida’s condition is a chronic case and they suggested sending her to Egypt for treatment.”

            “Hamida is one of hundreds of cases that we have registered,” explains Aly Al-Saeedy, head of the citizen assistance committee with Human Rights of Babylon in Baghdad.  “The Human Rights Association is doing its best to provide any help to the Iraqi people because the tragedy is huge. The deteriorated security conditions caused charity organizations and NGOs such as the Red Cross to leave Iraq.”

            At the same time, a young Egyptian woman was on a quest of her own.  Having spent some time in Iraq during the early days of the war, Mandi Mourad Fahmy, a translator and reporter, was now back in Egypt to tend to her ailing mother.  Having made many connections, Fahmy felt an overwhelming sense of duty to continue helping the citizens of Iraq from home.   

            “I wanted to go back to Iraq but I couldn’t go back, so I was trying to think of ways to help while I was away,” she explains.  “This guy told me about a few cases so I thought why don’t we bring them here?”

            Hamida wasn’t the first case Al-Saeedy contacted Fahmy about.  The first patient to come from Iraq was a 4-year old girl who has suffered from a hernia in her head since birth.  She was unable to talk or walk, however with an intricate operation – unavailable in Iraq – she could gain those abilities.  “She came and had this operation,” tells Fahmy.  “Now, she’s standing up, her father calls me and tells me.  It’s very gratifying.  Human Rights Association of Babylon wrote to me about this girl, they’re excited about helping.”    

Months later, Al-Saeedy contacted Fahmy once again to inform her about Hamida’s deteriorating condition.  The association explained the situation to the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad, supplying them with an invitation from Fahmy to come for treatment.  “The embassy was very sympathetic and understanding,” she says.  “[The family] collected whatever money they can, they get donations if they can, and come by land.  It’s difficult for someone who’s sick and dangerous.”


“We were left with two choices.  One option was to watch our children die and accept the reality imposed on us by Saddam’s regime, the occupation and terrorism, the death triangle for Iraqis who have experienced all sorts of suffering over the past 40 years,” says Al-Saeedy.  “The other option was to do our best to find people who can help us treat these children.  Mandi’s face gave me hope.  I found a lot of humanity in that woman.”

The 1,288 kilometer journey took Hamida and her family two days by bus.  Fahmy arranged for Hamida, her father and mother to stay in a rented apartment in Dokki at her expense.  “In Iraq, I don’t think they have the facilities for some tests.  I put them in touch with doctors, I call friends, if I’m working with any one, I asked them if they’re willing to donate.  If they are, fine.  I think God will help us.”

 “Mandi paid for all the living costs and arranged for neurosurgeon,” says Hamida’s father, Ali.  “Hamida went to the hospital twice and each doctor in Egypt use to do his part with all kinds of tests related to his specialty.”

Medical treatment was not free, but doctors lowered their rates given the circumstances.  Fahmy has paid some LE 2800 out of pocket to help the family.  The diagnosis was a chronic inherited case of hypomagnesia, the failure of her intestines to absorb magnesium, which to this day, is incurable. 

 “We have no reached any results,” he says.  “The doctor said she should take a 10 CC injection every three days.  After three days, she got a seizure.  So there was no actual treatment for her case.  There is no test that they didn’t repeat for us here in Egypt.  They suggested to do brain surgery for her, but said she might die in the surgery.  So we decided not to do the surgery.”

“She needs help,” pleas Fahmy.  “We need someone who’s familiar with the case.  We’ve done all sorts of tests.  It’s rare.  Here in Egypt they are not familiar with the case.  I’m told in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Palestine they are familiar with the case.  I hope we can find anyone who knows anything about this case.”

“What I am looking for is the treatment of my daughter Hamida,” says Ali.  “I don’t care if I go to America or any place in Europe.  I really suffered a lot with my other kids who died and I am looking to find a cure for Hamida.”

Hamida and her family recently got back on the bus, and tolerated the long journey back to Iraq, with no cure but enduring faith.  Meantime, Fahmy continues to work with human rights organizations in Iraq to bring people to Egypt who continue to suffer in the war-torn country. 

“If we suffer from something, we think it’s the end of the world,” she insists.  “These people, their whole day is full of suffering.  They have no electricity, no water, no good services.  They deal with it as a normal thing, they don’t complain.  I hope I can bring other people.”

If you have information about hypomagnesia or would like to help Hamida, please contact Mandi Fahmy at Mandim03@yahoo.com

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