Qusay Hussein arrived at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City six years ago with no idea how to get where he was going. He had come a long way from his home in the remote desert city of Hatra, Iraq. He was traveling alone with a badge pinned to his shirt that read, “I don’t speak English.” He also could not see, blinded by a suicide bombing years earlier. A woman touched his shoulder and, speaking in Arabic, asked if he needed help. “I told her, ‘I’m going to Texas—but I don’t know where it is,’” said Qusay.
A few days later, Qusay landed in Austin, where he was enrolled in a program with Refugee Services of Texas. His caseworker drove him to a small studio apartment in North Lamar. He left Qusay with some food and a warning: “Do not open the door for anyone.” He locked the door, took the key, and left. Qusay was too scared to even open the windows. “I spent many nights crying,” he said. “I wished I’d listened to my dad.” Qusay’s father did not want him to move to the United States for many reasons, not least because he thought it was too dangerous.
Qusay was born in the small village of Abujna in northern Iraq. He is the middle child of seven siblings—six boys and one girl. When he was about 15, Qusay’s family left the farm where he had spent his childhood and moved to Hatra, an ancient fortified city and UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Hatra, Qusay remembers the houses built wall-to-wall, streets full of children, and backyards alive with neighbors playing cards and dominos until dawn. From 7 a.m. until midday, Qusay and his brother worked for the United States Army building security checkpoints. After work, he went straight to school. In the evenings, Qusay and his friends would gather at a nearby field to play volleyball. In the beginning they had no net or ball, so they used a rope tied between two poles and whatever round object they could find.
On August 3, 2006, the air was thick with heat and dust as usual, but the stadium was still packed with people from all over town cheering on the teams. Toward the end of the game, Qusay noticed a pickup truck drive onto the field carrying what looked like sacks of grain. He remembers making eye contact with the driver as he grinned and blasted the horn, just before detonating the explosives. Qusay fell face-first on the ground. He felt his nose break, and the taste of blood filled his mouth. He stood up to run away but shrapnel threw him back to the ground. Everything went black.
Fifty-six people were injured, and 16 people were killed, including Qusay’s childhood friend Ibrahim. The wounded were piled into cars and trunks, on top of groceries, wherever they could fit. The convoy carried the injured to the nearest clinic in the center of Hatra, staffed by just one doctor and a handful of nurses. They were completely overwhelmed. The doctor took one look at Qusay and told his father that he only had half an hour left to live. “Go and take care of your other kids,” said the doctor, as two of Qusay’s brothers were also injured in the blast.
Qusay was left on the cold, hard floor of a quiet room where other bodies were waiting to be collected by families. His mouth and throat were clogged with blood. He couldn’t breathe through his nose, and he couldn’t see. Later that evening, after tending to his other sons, Qusay’s father came back to the clinic to collect the body. He entered the room, sobbing, unable to find his son. Qusay heard him and cried out, “Dad, don’t leave me here or I will die!” His father followed the voice to an unrecognizable figure—Qusay had lost his nose, right cheek, and half his skull in the blast. He was just 17 years old.
Qusay woke up. Panicked and confused, he started pulling himself free from the maze of tubes he felt all over his face and body. He had been in a coma for 12 days. Desperately thirsty, he asked the nurse for water: “Maye, maye,” was all he could say. The nurse dabbed his bottom lip with a wet cotton ball; his top lip was gone, and his stomach could not handle more than a few drops at a time. Every day Qusay asked the nurse, “Can you open my eyes?” Each time she replied, “Not today.”
He was, in some ways, lucky to be receiving treatment. On the way to seek care at a hospital in Mosul, Qusay and his father came across a US checkpoint. Qusay’s father agreed to let the soldiers take his son to their base by helicopter for emergency treatment. After hearing no news for several days, his family feared the worst and eventually held a funeral for their young son. When his father finally received a call from someone claiming his son was alive, he didn’t believe them and hung up the phone. It wasn’t until they called back a second time and identified a tattoo on Qusay’s right forearm that he allowed himself to believe his son was still alive.
For two years Qusay didn’t leave his house. He slept through the days in pain and spent the nights by the fire with his father, who told vivid stories about people overcoming difficult times in their lives. He stressed to Qusay the value of patience. As the war progressed, accessing the treatment and technology Qusay’s injuries required became impossible. He still could not open his eyes, could not breathe from his nose, and had to be fed by syringe. The pain was almost unbearable. Yet the kindness his family showed him stopped his depression from taking over.
Another year passed, with little hope for the future.
Then, one afternoon in September 2009, during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, Qusay heard a television advertisement offering medical services for people who had been seriously injured. Two days later, he spoke with a doctor from the reconstructive surgery hospital in Amman, Jordan, run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Qusay was asked to first see a doctor based in Mosul who could x-ray his head to determine if he was eligible for the program. Eleven days later, his sister read him a text message congratulating him on being approved for the program. His father could not stop laughing from happiness. And by the end of that year, Qusay and his father left Iraq for the first time.
Sitting in the office of Dr. Ashraf Albustanji, MSF’s maxillofacial surgeon in Amman, Qusay asked, “Doctor, can you refer me to an ophthalmologist?” Dr. Albustanji, who had just finished reading Qusay’s medical file, was puzzled by the request. “His eyes ruptured at the time of injury,” recalled Dr. Albustanji. “So, the doctors of the American army removed them to prevent infection.”
For years, Qusay’s family had kept alive his hope that one day he would get his sight back. When Dr. Albustanji told Qusay that his blindness was irreversible, the patient was devastated. “All hope was gone,” Qusay said. “I didn’t want to be alive anymore.” He thought about taking his life that night. “I prayed that [night] a lot,” he said. “I prayed [while] crying. It helped me [stay] calm. I said, I’m in a test. This is the big, difficult moment for the test, so I want to pray, and then I wish I will pass the test.”
The next day, Dr. Albustanji was surprised to see how his young patient had accepted the news. “He was shocked [but] he accepted the reality. It’s not easy for him, but that brave man, he can accept this. This is what makes him extraordinary. He is a strong guy. Not physically, I mean emotionally, very strong,” said Dr. Albustanji.
Qusay spent three years at the MSF hospital in Amman undergoing multiple surgeries and receiving rehabilitative care. Dr. Albustanji worked with a team of orthopedic and plastic surgeons to repair the injuries left untended in Iraq. The metal plates that were fixated to the right side of Qusay’s face years earlier had become infected. Now that his bones had healed, they could be removed. This meant that Qusay no longer needed someone to help shower him and wash his hair. He underwent multiple surgeries to try and restore his ability to breathe through his nose. MSF doctors also replaced the skin on his nose. (An earlier transplant had used skin from his scalp, so every morning Qusay had to shave the thick black hair that grew where it shouldn’t.)
The surgical team also rebuilt his top lip, lifted up his eyelids, implanted prosthetic eyes, and took cartilage from his ears to reshape part of his forehead. Qusay jokes that he was particularly pleased with that surgery as it made his ears smaller. “He likes to make jokes to make people around laugh,” said Dr. Albustanji. “When you visit him in the morning after surgery, he has a sense of humor. And [people] were surprised how this young man with this misery can laugh.”
In Amman, MSF’s multidisciplinary teams work together to provide patient-centered care. “We are treating post-war injured patients, so it’s complex reconstructive surgeries in orthopedic, plastic, and maxillofacial,” said Dr. Rasheed Fakhri, MSF’s surgical coordinator who helped open the hospital in 2006 and has worked there since. “I knew him well [and] I kept in touch with him through all these years, because for me Qusay is a mentor.”
The hospital was designed to respond to the lack of specialized treatment available to civilians who were injured during the early years of the Iraq war. “Mainly they were victims of explosions, roadside bombs, and bullets,” said Dr. Fakhri. After the Arab Spring, the hospital started treating patients from other countries in the region, mostly Yemen and Syria, with complex injuries from barrel bombs and collapsing houses.
Unless people can afford to pay for expensive surgeries at private clinics in their home countries—if the necessary supplies and technology are even available—most victims in the region are left untreated with little hope for their future. “Doing surgeries for patients who didn’t have any access at that time to any facility is, in itself, comforting to the patient that the future can still be good for them,” said Dr. Fakhri.
After surgery, patients are also supported with physical therapy, health education, pain control, and mental health support. “All those people really play a major part in making the patients find their way back to their normal life,” said Dr. Fakhri. About once a month, the staff also organized group therapy activities, such as poetry nights (Qusay was a regular participant) and field trips to sites around the city.
One day, on a bus ride to the Dead Sea, Qusay heard how happy everyone was; people were dancing, laughing, and singing. He thought about how important these outings were to the mental health of the patients. He asked Mohammad, the bus driver, “If we can fill the bus, will you take us wherever we want to go?” Mohammad said that if everyone could pay five dollars to cover the cost of the bus, he would. So, every Friday Qusay planned an outing with the other patients. They visited Amman’s Seven Mountains, Aqaba, Petra, and many other places. “The happiness, the smiles, the pictures they shared, the pictures they sent to their family—it made them feel normal again,” said Qusay. “[It] made me feel like I’m something.”
Qusay also undertook a training program for patients who had lost their eyesight. Eventually he was able to navigate the world outside the hospital by himself. “My independence [came] back to me. I was the person who I want to be,” he said. “The three years I spent with Doctors Without Borders in Amman [were] the most beautiful years for me. I met many people, many different cultures…. All of them, they add to me something.”
Towards the end of his treatment, Qusay started thinking about his future and what life would be like if he returned to Iraq. “My country, they don’t support [blind people] for anything. When I saw that, I found out I need to go to a country who believes in me—as a person, as human,” he said.
A friend invited Qusay to an event hosted by the International Organization for Migration in Jordan. There, he was inspired by a blind doctor from the Palestinian Territories who had studied in the United States. “My main goal was to get education, to learn a new language, and then open a new page for my new life. Forget the life when I have sight, the life when I got depression after I lost my vision in Iraq. This [is why] I became a refugee.
“I didn’t choose the US, my destiny brought me to the US.”
Today, Qusay lives in a single-story apartment building on the corner of a busy intersection in East Austin. His spotless one-bedroom hides behind shades that stay drawn day and night. On a wall in the center of the room, below framed achievement awards and graduation certificates, is a photograph of Qusay and his parents at their home in Mosul last May—a couple of months after he became a US citizen and a few weeks before his mother passed away. That visit was his first trip back home to Iraq in more than seven years.
“Mosul is [a] devastated city right now,” said Qusay. “It is destroyed completely. Everything—historic, human…. When I went there, trust me, I cried.” In 2014, when the Islamic State [IS] took over Hatra his family was forced to flee to Mosul after their house was destroyed; they barely escaped before it collapsed.
His older brother was targeted by IS because of his work with the US army and forced to flee to Turkey along with his wife and two children. They eventually settled in Germany, after risking their lives crossing the Aegean Sea in a flimsy rubber boat to reach Greece and making the rest of the journey by foot.
“I hear anti-refugee [sentiments] in the news,” said Qusay. “It make[s] me sad. Refugees need help. They need help from everyone, not from just me. Refugees don’t come from happiness. [They don’t] come because they wanted to come. They have another situation [that] makes them leave their countries. They just look for a better life.”
When Qusay first arrived in Texas in December 2012, after a painful few weeks feeling trapped in his apartment, he realized he had to take matters into his own hands. Qusay asked his case worker to call an interpreter. “Please tell him I need to go out,” said Qusay to the person on the phone. “I need [to] see human reaction, I need [to] be seeing people. I feel tired from sitting here just by myself, no TV, no radio—nothing.”
That afternoon the case worker returned and took Qusay grocery shopping. “When I entered the store, I heard a lot people talking. I thought, ‘I’m in heaven, oh my God, this is America.’ I was super happy that day.”
Qusay enrolled in English classes with Interfaith Action of Central Texas. In four months, he was confident enough to enroll in the English as a Second Language course at Austin Community College (ACC). Qusay didn’t have the opportunity to finish high school in Iraq, but he went on to obtain his GED and associate degree, graduating with the Presidential Student Achievement Award. He sent the recording of his five-minute acceptance speech to his family in Iraq. “When they saw it, they [were] crying,” said Qusay, “Even though they do not understand English.” His dad explained, “Because I saw you up on the stage, and people stood up [and applauded] when you finished your speech. So, I’m proud of you.”
Qusay is now a first-year student at the University of Texas (UT), a sprawling campus of over 50,000 undergraduate students. He sits in the front row of the auditorium of 250 mostly first-year students. No pens, paper, or laptop on his desk like the other students, just a coffee and a voice recorder. “There is nothing hard-edged about him,” said one of Qusay’s professors, Dr. Karl Galinsky. “He is very professional, very focused, and he’s a very good student. It’s not that I am cutting him extra slack. He has self-motivation, and that’s very important besides intelligence. He takes initiative.”
Before he arrived in the US, Qusay had never used a computer, but, like Spanish and braille, he taught himself. He gets mostly As and he keeps up with the other students, even though getting the things he needs to make this happen is like taking another class (often the required readings are not accessible, so he has to trek a mile across campus to request them).Qusay is majoring in psychology at UT with the hope of embarking on a PhD in 2020. “My big dream is to get my PhD and go back to Doctors Without Borders in Amman and work as [a] psychologist. I want to work with trauma and victims and other people going through difficult times. I think I know how to help others with similar experiences—that is my new dream.”
Qusay has given motivational talks all over the world. Early last year he travelled to Romania to talk to teenagers who were orphaned at a young age. Shortly afterward he went to Iraq to speak to people with disabilities with an organization that focuses on advocacy for women and children. He has also traveled around the United States—including to Washington, DC; Florida; California; and Oklahoma. Recently, after giving a talk at ACC, two women approached him and said that he had changed their lives: he was the reason they had the confidence and motivation to register for classes.
“I hope you want to be something great, in your community, in your country, in your town,” said Qusay. “This country has presented me with many opportunities and hope for a new life. I want to give back to this country that has helped me so much. If we all work together, we all have better days and [a] brighter future.”