Adjusting to a new life

Jenna Staul

Hussein Yassian, of Iraq, is one of the many children who has lived with Steve Sosebee after being brought to America for medical help. Yassian was involved in a bus bombing in 2005 that left him without a right eye and half of his left arm. HEATHER STAW

Credit: Jason Hall

A smile beams from Hussein Yassian’s face as he flings his jacket and Kent State ski hat to the floor: The 11-year-old has just received two dollars to spend at a Satterfield Hall vending machine, and in this simple moment life seems pretty good.

Within seconds, he dashes to the junk-food-stocked apparatus with unbridled urgency and dollar bills in hand. Staring at a seemingly endless selection of snacks, his face tenses in deliberation as he makes this all-important decision. Will it be a candy bar or potato chips?

Hussein has, however, seen grimmer days.

“I was walking and it just happened,” he said. “My grandpa is dead, and I went with my dad to go look for him (his grave). We took a bus and after we got off, I was just walking and then I don’t remember what happened.”

In April 2005, Hussein was struck by a bomb near his hometown Najaf, Iraq, disfiguring his face and leaving him without a left arm and right eye. At an age when many United States children are playing video games and Little League, Hussein became all too familiar with the hardships of a nation at war.

“I didn’t hurt or anything, I just knew when I woke up that I was in the hospital,” Hussein said.

On March 18, Hussein was reunited with his father in Jordan before returning to Iraq. In the two weeks prior, Hussein called Kent his home – but his journey here was a difficult one.

Following the bombing, Hussein was taken by his father to a U.S. Army base, where soldiers contacted Steve Sosebee, president of Kent-based charity Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, an organization specializing in finding pro bono medical attention in Europe and the United States for Middle Eastern children injured by war.

“I’ve had dozens of children like Hussein in my home over the years,” said Sosebee, a 1990 Kent alumnus and father of two. “I founded the organization 16 years ago and in that time we’ve helped over 700 children.”

One year and 10 surgeries after the bombing that left him severely wounded, Hussein made the trek from Iraq to Phoenix, where he would remain for the next year. Through an effort sponsored by both Sosebee’s Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund and similar charity Healing the Children, Hussein underwent an additional three surgeries in Phoenix while living with an American host family.

But Hussein faced another challenge beside the various medical operations he underwent – culture shock.

“The first days I was here I was kind of homesick but after that I was okay. It’s kind of boring over there,” Hussein said of his homeland. “It’s more fun over here.”

During his time in the United States, Hussein, who was enrolled in third grade while in Phoenix, has also mastered the English language.

“At first I didn’t understand English, so when they didn’t want me to know something they’d say it in English,” Hussein said. “But then I learned to speak English too, so whenever they didn’t want me to know something they’d spell it. And then I learned how to spell…”

For his part, Hussein has a unique take on the troubles that plague his home country.

“There’s people over there that will get mad over a cow,” Hussein said. “Then they will fight over it with bombs and guns and people are killed, but it won’t have anything to do with the cow anymore – they’re just fighting.”

Hussein, who was sent to Kent as a part of a transitional phase during his trip home, received a cornea graft on his remaining eye during his stay. He is expected to return to the United States in several years to undergo his 14th surgery.

Contact features correspondent Jenna Staul at [email protected].