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Iraqi girl comes to region for leukemia treatment

Monday, September 18, 2000

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mariam Hamza, the 6-year-old Iraqi girl who has become an international symbol for those who want to end sanctions against Iraq, will be calling Western Pennsylvania home for the next several months.

  Mariam Hamza, 6, of Iraq, with her grandmother Umhadiattiah Burham during a picnic at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Monroeville. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Mariam and her grandmother, Umhadiattah Burhan, 70, are here on a medical visa while doctors continue to monitor the young girl for any recurrence of her leukemia, now in remission for six months. They also will be examining her eyes. Damage during her initial radiation treatments in Iraq left her blind.

Because of the sanctions, Iraqi doctors "don't have enough equipment to control the radiation," causing serious injury to Mariam and other patients, said Dr. Ali Aboosi, a Greensburg pediatrician who will be caring for Mariam while she's here.

Aboosi, who has volunteered his services, has relatives in Baghdad himself. "They are still suffering from the sanctions."

Yesterday, Mariam and her grandmother were at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Monroeville for its annual community picnic. Later they visited the Kaufmann's store at Westmoreland Mall, which had offered to donate winter clothing to the girl.

For one who has suffered so much -- her arms are pocked with puncture scars from attempts to insert intravenous lines -- little Mariam is full of charm. She rushes to strangers and hugs them, pressing her beautiful brown eyes and curly, dark hair against their shoulders. She laughs easily, then bashfully hides her face in her grandmother's scarf.

Grandmother and granddaughter traveled from their home in southern Iraq to Jordan, then flew to New York, then to Pittsburgh last month, where they've been staying with Mark and Krista Clement in the Bruderhof Communities in Farmington, Fayette County.

The Clements, both 49, made two trips to Iraq last year and met Mariam through their friendship with George Galloway, a member of British Parliament who has lobbied strongly for ending the sanctions.

It was Galloway who first brought Mariam to international attention after he met her in a Baghdad hospital while on a trip to spotlight the effects of United Nations sanctions on ordinary Iraqi citizens. Galloway later established the Mariam Appeal, which has its own Web site ( meant to highlight the suffering of Iraqi people under the sanctions.

With Western Pennsylvania as home base, Mark Clement said Mariam will likely travel to New York and Washington in coming months to tell her story to all who will listen. Their hope is that she will become as well known in America as she is in Europe.

Clement says their cause is humanitarian, not political, but he's well aware that critics have accused Galloway of using Mariam as a political pawn.

"What do they think we're using her for?" Clement asked. "My question for them would be, 'Is it wrong to bring attention to the fact that our country's policies are killing approximately 250 children every day in Iraq, and already have killed over 1 million children?' Shouldn't the American people be aware of this fact?"

The U.S. State Department disputes those accusations, saying the sanctions have never prohibited medicine or other humanitarian aid from Iraqis. The sanctions, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said, are in place because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has refused to comply with conditions accepted at the end of the Gulf War, including the elimination of weapons that can cause mass destruction. "Saddam Hussein is responsible for the suffering of his people," Albright said.

Clement calls that argument "bogus," saying Iraq's infrastructure is in ruins and the country is incapable of making weapons of mass destruction.

"I think the real reason [for the sanctions] is so that Iraq can never become a power in the Middle East again."

He hopes Mariam can help drive that point home. Though only one little girl, her irresistible smile may put a human face to international tragedy.

She's doing well, her grandmother said in Arabic, and she has learned a few English words, such as "bread," and "chicken," and "come on, come on!" when things are not happening quickly enough.

But Mariam misses her two younger sisters and infant brother. Her father calls weekly, Aboosi said, and though longing to see her, he understands that both his daughter and his fellow Iraqis will benefit from her stay in America.

"He says, 'If they can't do anything for her eyes, let her stay there as a symbol of what the sanctions have done.' "

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