A Child’s Need, A Reporter’s Story, A Nation’s Outpouring

By Chris Ariens 

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CNN Baghdad correspondent Arwa Damon says she has only smiled twice on camera since she started reporting from Iraq. The first time was when the Iraqi team won the Asian Cup soccer tournament. “The second time was when everything came together” for Youssif.

Youssif is the 5-year-old Iraqi boy doused with gasoline and set ablaze outside his Baghdad home by unidentified assailants. Today Youssif underwent his first of as many as 10 surgeries to heal his wounds at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, CA.

Youssif’s story first appeared Aug. 22 on CNN.com. By the next day, a follow-up story appeared and the outpouring of support began for the boy from Baghdad. By Friday, Aug. 24 CNN-U.S. president Jim Walton had sent a memo to his staff: “[Youssif’s story] became one of the most read stories in the history of CNN.com, with thousands of people saying they wanted to help.” And they did. More than 12,000 viewers donated money. About $300,000 raised so far. So much, that leftover donations will go to other children in need.

I spoke with Arwa Damon this afternoon as she waited at the hospital with Youssif’s parents. “It’s been extraordinary. I’m speechless to a certain degree. We put the story out there. But being someone who works in Iraq, there still does exist compassion in the world.”

The money raised will cover Youssif’s surgeries and the living arrangments for his family: a two-bedroom apartment in Woodland Hills, complete with swimming pool; about as far from central Baghdad as one could get. The series of surgeries could take up to nine months.

Damon, who speaks Arabic, Turkish and English, says she has bonded with the family. “We’ve laughed, collected memories, I will always keep in touch with them.” But in a few months it’s back to Baghdad for the correspondent. “My heart’s in Baghdad.” And who knows, maybe she’ll find another story that will put a smile on her face.