- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - A 3-year-old Iraqi girl who was blinded and disfigured in a 2006 Baghdad car bombing has traveled to India and Jordan in her family’s quest to restore her vision.

But Shams _ whose name in Arabic means “sun” _ appears no closer to regaining her eyesight and still spends her days feeling her way around the sparse five-room home she shares with her grandparents and 10 other people.

Her case reflects the enormous challenges facing countless Iraqis left physically and emotionally scarred by the sectarian violence that spared nobody following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Shams’ story, first reported by The Associated Press last December and posted on YouTube, touched many hearts. Offers of aid poured in.

Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric paid for her to travel to India to be examined by ophthalmologists. An American man sent her a Teddy bear and a coloring book. One woman offered to contact Oprah Winfrey.

Shams was luckier than many Iraqi victims of violence because so many people came forward with offers of help.

But the doctors she has seen so far have unanimously concluded that her eyesight cannot be restored and that efforts should focus on reconstructive surgery and teaching Shams how to cope with life in the darkness.

Baghdad has a school for the blind but it doesn’t accept pupils under the age of 6, advocates said.

“Shams must be suffering from psychological implications,” said Sadiq al-Maliki, the head of an Iraqi association for the blind. “Unfortunately, in Iraq, there is no kindergarten for blind children. So there is no institution in Iraq that can help Shams.”

Shams, who has dark curly hair, responds best to music, happily holding a cell phone playing Arabic songs to her ear and bobbing her head to the tunes. But she quickly becomes frustrated when the music stops, banging her forehead on the carpeted floor before the adults in the family can reach her to cushion the blow.

While Shams has received multiple offers of medical aid, experts said equally as important is the need to teach her and her family to deal with her blindness.

“What they really need is to have somebody come in to do some intervention and teach her some basic skills,” said Susan LaVenture, the chair and co-founder of the International Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments.

“She’s angry right now because she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her,” LaVenture added in a telephone call from New York.

Shams was riding with her mother in the back seat of her father’s pickup when a car bomb exploded nearby on Nov. 23, 2006 _ one of five simultaneous blasts that killed more than 200 people in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City.

Her mother died. The girl survived but her face was severely injured and her sight was gone.

Lots of people have tried to help her, but the efforts have been sporadic.

Shortly after the bombing, she was treated at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Amman, Jordan. But the eye specialists determined her sight could not be restored, so she returned home.

A U.S. government-backed organization visited her and examined her records but said it could help only Iraqi civilians wounded in attacks by U.S.-led forces. Other groups said they could only fund urgent medical needs, not plastic surgery.

Her grandfather said he was contacted by the official health agency in the United Arab Emirates and by a Palestinian children’s organization. They took copies of her records and pictures, but he never heard back from them.

The charity of Iraq’s pre-eminent Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani paid for the family to travel through Iran to India last month for a medical evaluation. Indian specialists agreed that her vision was lost and that efforts should be concentrated on plastic surgery.

She has returned to her concrete home in a poor neighborhood in eastern Baghdad where she walks around the main sitting room mumbling to herself while her brothers and cousins play around her. Her grandparents are her main caregivers, although her father and his new wife live next door.

The Teddy bear and Spongebob coloring book were delivered by DHL to their house, located across a torn-up road from a three-story apartment that was gutted in a 2007 bombing. But Shams can’t see them so they haven’t been used.

The family has now pinned its hopes on a trip to London after the Times of London raised about $165,000. The newspaper hopes to bring her to Britain next month for further treatment.

“We have hope in God. We want her to see,” her grandfather, Fadhil al-Obeidi, said as Shams reached behind to feel for his feet from her perch on the floor in front of him. “We still have hope that some medical help will come through.”

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