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Originally published Sunday, October 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Hamoody learning to navigate his expanding world

For the 3-year-old who miraculously survived a gunshot wound to the face in his native Iraq, making his way through life with a white cane and Braille would be a wonderful victory.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tap, tap, swish, swish.

Holding the white cane in front of him, Muhammed "Hamoody" Hussein detects shapes looming in the perpetual darkness before him — a wagon with toys, other students, a turn in the school hallway and eventually an elevator door. He listens for the difference in sound as his cane hits hollow metal.

"This is the elevator," says Elizabeth Williams, his school aide. "Hear the difference?" Tap, tap, tap, tap.

It's the sound of Hamoody's expanding world — one where blindness could be reduced to a "physical inconvenience" rather than a handicap. For the 3-year-old who miraculously survived a gunshot wound to the face in his native Iraq, making his way through life with a white cane and Braille would be a wonderful victory.

There have been many smaller — though hardly insignificant — victories in the five months since the blind and disfigured boy was brought here by a nonprofit agency that put him in touch with volunteer doctors who hope to help repair his bullet-ravaged face.

While his medical problems turned out to be far more severe than the doctors first predicted, Hamoody has eased into life with his host family, Randy and Julie Robinett Smith of Snohomish. He attends preschool, is now fluent in English, plays soccer and has made friends. He wears striped Polo shirts, cargo pants, a wool coat and hat and has developed a love for books in Braille.

But many questions remain. Not only is it uncertain when he will return to Iraq, but doctors continue to assess the damage he suffered when his family was ambushed north of Baghdad. Little can be done to restore his sight and doctors have learned that the damage to his sinuses caused him to develop severe sleep apnea, which robs Hamoody of a night's rest and distorts his speech. The first of many surgeries the boy will face will involve bone grafts to correct the apnea.

Between the poking and prodding of doctors, Hamoody is enjoying and growing into a life that few children in his native Iraq can know.

In September, Hamoody started a special preschool for disabled children at the Snohomish School District's Central Primary Center, joining eight other students in a half-day program designed to improve mobility skills, develop independence and smooth the way for academics.

Each school day, Hamoody bounds from his bed in the Smiths' large Snohomish home, with the family poodles, Tiffany and Roger, chasing after him. "I go school. I go school," he excitedly tells his foster mother.

By 8:15, Smith helps him on with the red backpack, which is almost as big as he is, and they walk to the end of the driveway to catch the yellow school bus. He's so small he must be strapped into a child's car seat.

Williams, an aide assigned to him, meets Hamoody at the school, unbuckles him and stands back. She coaches him on how to use his white cane to find the way down the aisle and the steep stairs of the bus.

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"Swish, swish, tap, tap," she says, reminding him how to use it. "Keep the cane in front of you. You don't need to know what's in back."

Education has widened the boundaries of Hamoody's world. Not only has he met other children, but he's learning to navigate independently by maximizing his other abilities — hearing and touch — aided by his cane, a sort of antenna that feels out the world before him.

"Follow the trail," Williams tells him as he enters the school. He places a hand on a wall and follows it down the hallway instead of wandering around by himself.

When he reaches his classroom, the "trail" becomes the edge of a rug. Williams tells Hamoody to feel it with his foot as he walks to the table where one of several of his teachers wait to help him with Braille.

When children learn to use a cane, become familiar with Braille and a variety of other concepts early in life, it makes it easier for them to focus on academics when they reach kindergarten age, says Michelle Cormier, one of Hamoody's teachers.

In a corner, Cormier brings out a book in Braille with various objects designed to develop Hamoody's tactile senses, from plastic pretzels to scratchy sandpaper. Hamoody — a traditional nickname for Muhammed — was excited when he realized that the Braille dots in the books were words. At this point the goal is to get him used to the concept of Braille as a reading method, and to work on hand strength and using his fingers to feel things.

"He's just so smart. He picks up on concepts so fast," Cormier says.

Hamoody was brought to the Seattle area in May by Healing the Children, a nonprofit that matches hospitals and doctors willing to donate their services with children in need of medical care not available where they live. His uncle Adil Joda had contacted the agency, hoping to find a way to restore the little boy's sight.

Hamoody, who is Shiite, was shot in the face by Sunni militants while riding in a car outside Baghdad in May 2005. An uncle died in the attack; his mother and another relative were injured. There was only so much that could be done for him at Iraqi hospitals. The bullet had shattered his right eye and damaged the left one as well. A thick scar left mounds of flesh on his forehead where smooth skin should be, and an indentation instead of a nose.

After being examined by eye surgeons in Seattle, there appears that little can be done to restore his vision, but there is still much that can be done to rebuild his damaged face and sinuses. Later this month, he is scheduled to meet with a specialist. His visa — which expires in December — can be renewed if necessary to allow him to complete his medical care.

Just how long it will take no one knows because each visit to a physician results in the discovery of a new medical problem.

Yet his impish smile, his halo of brown hair and precocious personality win him instant friends who rave about his brightness, sense of humor and indomitable spirit.

"He wants to drive the car," says Smith, who with her husband, Randy, has cared for Hamoody since his arrival. At that time, he spoke no English. Now he's forgotten his Arabic. His quick ability to learn English opened worlds of communication and closeness with the Smiths. "Are you happy? Are you proud of me? Do you love me?" he asks Smith. "You're ridiculous!" he adds, parroting the phrases they often use with him.

He's also grown, has adapted to American food — and having plenty of it — and to being safe from bombs and gunfire.

"He talks about what happened to him," Smith says. He mimics the sound of gunfire and tells her that after the shooting it was dark. "I was all covered in water [blood] and I went up to heaven and came back down," he says.

"He was dying," she explains.

His days are now filled with happier things — playing with his best friend, soccer with a team of other disabled kids and the continuing classroom adventures. "I think he's forgetting what happened," Smith says. "And that's good."

During Hamoody's reprieve from the violence in Iraq, the independent living skills he's learning are critical. What education he receives here may be all he will ever get.

When he returns, he will be unable to attend school — there are no facilities for training blind students — will likely not be able to hold a job and will be considered an outcast.

"The lack of training in this child's home country will be difficult to overcome," says Mark Riccobono, director of education for the National Federation of the Blind. "But the society's view of blindness is more difficult to overcome. This means that at every turn the child will get the message that blindness is a barrier to his success."

That makes this early education more important than ever, he says.

"Early use of the long white cane is setting this young man on the road to success from step one. The long white cane is the key to independent movement and travel," Riccobono says.

With early training and technological advances in computers, cellphones and other devices, there is no reason blindness should be considered anything more than a "physical inconvenience," Riccobono says.

When it's time for Hamoody to return to Iraq, it will be a difficult transition not only for him, but for all who have come to love him.

"We talk a lot about [him] going back to Iraq," Smith says. "I tell him to remember that no matter what anyone says to him to always remember that auntie says he's smart and handsome."

Hamoody then picks up Smith's umbrella and begins using it as a cane: tap, tap, tap, swish, swish, tap, tap — exploring his new world.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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