Unexpected Rewards for Saving Afghan Girl

ByABC News

Dec. 18, 2003 -- These days, Zubaida Hasan looks like a normal little girl. But two years ago, in a tiny village in Afghanistan, she was unimaginably disfigured in an accident.

An American doctor gave her her life back — and they both got more than they ever hoped for in each other.

Zubaida had been carrying a kerosene lamp when she fell and caught on fire. Her chin melted onto her chest. She was unable to close her eyes. And her right arm was bent and glued to her side. She was 9 years old.

"She was drooling because she couldn't close her mouth. She was skinny because she wasn't able to eat properly. She was sleeping with her eyes open and it was taking its toll on her. You could see that she was wearing down," said Dr. Peter Grossman.

On the Road to Recovery

Zubaida and Grossman first met early last year, after her father, Muhammad, sought help from American soldiers in Afghanistan. She was sent to the Grossman Burn Center in Los Angeles, which was founded by Peter's father, Richard Grossman.

Peter Grossman said Zubaida was one of the worst burn cases he had ever seen, and along with his father, he planned for her to undergo a series of a dozen surgeries. The treatment would cost $1 million in all, but it would be paid for by the Children's Burn Foundation of Sherman Oaks, Calif.

If you want to learn more about Zubaida Hasan and what you can do to help her and her family in Afghanistan, go to the Children's Burn Foundation Web site at this address: http://www.childburn.org.

The procedures were excruciating. In the first week alone, Zubaida underwent two surgeries — to free up her neck, and to add skin grafts from her own back. The next four operations would involve treatment for her arm, her eyelid, her ear and lip.

By that point, the transformation was already under way. "She looked like a weird, 80-year-old man, and now a little girl evolved from underneath that mask of scar tissue," Grossman said.

And it was more than a physical transformation. Zubaida was also becoming American. Doctors got used to finding her in her hospital bed, singing "shake your booty" — and later, dancing despite being wrapped in bandages.

"I think that's what kept her going," Grossman said. "She wanted to live. She wanted to dance. She wanted to be a child again."

Closer to the Heart

Four months after her first surgery, Zubaida was well enough to play outside. But her father had returned to Afghanistan, and without somewhere to live while the surgeries continued, Zubaida was going to have to also return.

However, in an extraordinary gesture, Grossman and his wife, Rebecca, decided to become her legal guardians. "Sometimes things just feel right. And you do something you never thought you would do," he said.

For Zubaida, home became a gated community with stables in back, a granite swimming pool, and vast beautiful rooms. She also went to school for the first time in her life.

In just 12 weeks at school, she learned English. By her 11th birthday, surrounded by all her friends from school, she was celebrating American-style.

"They love her," said Rebecca Grossman. "And when she started school they were fighting over who was going to be her best friend."

Peter Grossman remembers going to a father-daughter dance at Zubaida's elementary school with her.

"I could see how proud she was to go the dance and have me be there with her. That just did it for me. I mean I said to myself, she is my child. While she is in this country, she is my child," he said.

Eleven months after her first surgery, Zubaida had her 12th and final operation. Then it was time for what would become the most painful part of the operation — bringing Zubaida home.

As much as Zubaida enjoyed life in the United States, she also missed her family.

Peter Grossman said it would be a difficult thing to do, but he realized it was necessary.

"If you came to me and said, help my child, and I agreed, and then through it all, we took care of the child and then we said you know what, I can provide a better life for your child, I'm not gonna give her back to you. Would that be fair? No," he said.

In a perfect world, Zubaida said, she would want the Grossmans to live with her in Afghanistan.

A Bittersweet Farewell

Peter Grossman accompanied Zubaida back to Afghanistan, traveling 34 hours from sunny, gleaming Los Angeles to the dusty, decrepit streets of Kabul.

He flew Zubaida's parents into Kabul from their remote village. They hadn't seen their daughter in a year, and — with no electricity, phone or even postal system — they had no idea how much she had changed.

It was an emotional reunion. As Zubaida embraced her parents, they broke out into uncontrollable sobs.

"My adorable daughter. Did you recognize your mother, did you?" her mother said. "My beloved daughter, I adore you. Oh what days I went through. I adore you."

Zubaida's father praised Peter Grossman. "Zubaida's mother had a nervous breakdown twice. God sent him and he helped us or she would have been dead," he said through a translator. "We were dying too. Nine of us would have been dead."

The moment was a bittersweet experience for Peter Grossman.

"Initially I felt pushed out," he said. "But then I saw how she reconnected with her parents … and I felt a catharsis of all these feelings that I had had that perhaps I was leaving her in a place that she shouldn't be. All of those went away.

"They may not have everything in the world," he said. "They may not be able to provide her with all the luxuries in the world, but the one thing they can provide her with is love, and that is what they have for her and she has for them."

This story originally aired Sept. 11, 2003.

Postscript: Three months after Zubaida's arrival back in Afghanistan, Primetime traveled back to see her, and brought gifts the Grossmans had been trying to get to her. Zubaida's village is so remote there's no way to keep in touch. But the Grossmans left a specially programmed satellite phone with her — and they speak at least once a week.

"She seems to be happy," said Rebecca. "She did say the last time I spoke to her that she really misses her friends a lot." But Peter added, "As time has gone on and she has had less and less opportunity to speak English, we find that we're able to communicate with her less and less. She's forgetting some of her vocabulary."

Zubaida also said she hadn't been going to school because it is so far away. So the Grossmans are hoping to buy her father a car, so he can drive her to school and use it as a taxi, or help the family move to a bigger city.

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