Ahmed Abu Salama is in a wheelchair, in the basement of Madison's Ronald McDonald House. He and his mother have been here since late May, receiving care from UW Hospital. Their ordeal began a year and a half ago and is continuing.
"There's pain in my heart," says Ahmed, 17. "I can't walk. I have limited movement."
Asked to describe what happened to him, he declines: "I can't talk about the injury. It's too painful."
Ahmed is wearing shorts and a tank top. His mother, Karima Abu Salama, is wearing a long black dress with red, purple and yellow embroidery, the kind women make in Jebalya refugee camp, their home in the Gaza Strip. Her hair is covered with a beautiful purple headscarf, also embroidered.
It is she who tells the story.
On March 1, 2008, just after Ahmed turned 16, the Israeli army invaded Jebalya. That morning, Ahmed had gone to school as usual. When he didn't return home by dark, his parents, who'd heard that 170 people died that day in Israeli attacks, became alarmed. They checked area hospitals and morgues, and asked radio stations to air messages. They called the Red Cross and the Israeli authorities to see if he was arrested. No luck.
The next day, a body was found of a boy Ahmed's age; the body could not be identified because it had no face, hands or stomach. Hoping it wasn't Ahmed, his parents waited for two more weeks to see if the body would be claimed by anyone else. When it wasn't, they accepted it was him and gave him a funeral.
"I have a death certificate for him," says Karima.
Weeks later, two of Ahmed's friends came to the family's house to tell his father that they'd seen Ahmed in the hospital. They'd gone there to visit Muhammad, a mutual friend, but recognized him as Ahmed. They related this to Muhammad's family, who were sitting by him, and were told to leave.
Ahmed's parents, hearing this story, decided to go to the hospital and check. There, says Karima, a fight erupted between the two families over the boy's identity. The police were called; they tried to resolve the matter by checking physical characteristics. Karima offered several that proved correct. Ahmed, with a breathing tube and in a coma most of the time, saw her and started crying and shaking.
At that point the other family accepted Ahmed's identity. He had been seriously injured by shrapnel from a missile launched by invading Israeli tanks.
After two months in the trauma center, Ahmed was sent to the Waffa rehabilitation and nursing center in eastern Gaza, which mostly houses elderly and severely disabled patients. Not able to move or talk, he shared a room with two disabled men.
One day, his mother relates, the center came under Israeli attack. The two disabled men dragged Ahmed to safety with their teeth. The next day, Ahmed's parents came by to visit and found the room empty, full of bullet holes.
Again they feared he was dead.
Ahmed stayed in Waffa for six months. He had a large head wound, injuries to his elbow and foot and many infections. The Israeli children's hospital in Tel Hashomer agreed to take him, but Karima says Israeli military authorities in Gaza refused to let them cross the border. The family was also blocked from taking him to a hospital in Egypt. Ahmed's condition worsened.
The Iowa-based Palestine Children's Relief Fund heard of his case and pledged to help. Working with the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, the group brought Ahmed to Egypt on May 25, 2009, and from there to Madison.
The Madison group's initial goal was to create a sister city relationship with Gaza's Rafah refugee camp. When that effort failed in 2004, its members decided to focus on humanitarian aid projects. They raised $10,000 to install a playground in a Rafah neighborhood; sent medical books to the Gaza Community Mental Health Program; and established two long-term economic projects, bringing crafts (mainly embroidery) from Rafah and olive oil and olive oil soap from the West Bank.
Ahmed is the second Rafah child helped by the group. The first was a young boy with leukemia who was treated in Israel with funds partially collected in Madison. Ahmed is the first Gazan to come to Madison for treatment.
Thair Kutkut, a Palestinian raised in Jordan, now works as a medical interpreter in Madison; he interprets for Ahmed and Karima. He and his family also spend a lot of uncompensated time with the Abu Salamas, showing them around town and inviting them over to their home.
"The least I can do is help a mother and her injured child," he says. The experience has made him bolder: "You ask people to help in whatever way they can. Not just to help Ahmed but anyone in need, of any religion, anywhere."
Ahmed is improving but still needs much care. More work is needed on his elbow, which was broken and healed wrong. Kutkut is trying to find elbow specialists to help clarify the likely expense, and a benefactor is being sought.
"Ahmed was originally scheduled to leave Madison on Aug. 24, but considering how hard it was to get him out of Gaza, it would be a shame not do it while he's in the U.S.," says Barbara Olson, coordinator of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.
Back in the Ronald McDonald House, Karima talks about the hardship Ahmed's situation has caused her family. Her unemployed husband is caring for their other five children by himself. The children have nightmares and have started wetting their beds after "first seeing the pieces of meat that they thought was their brother, then seeing him so badly wounded."
Ahmed himself has problems with speech and memory. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he needs counseling.
Karima looks forward to a day when peace will prevail.
"My husband asked me to make sure that we tell you we want peace. Shalom, shalom, shalom."