A Minnetonka lawyer and her family opened their home to an Iraqi widow when her daughter needed spinal surgery.
Shanna Hassan, left, and Johanna Clyborne visited in Minnetonka earlier this month. Hassan and her daughter, Lamyaa Kareem, stayed with Clyborne, a major in the Minnesota National Guard, and her family before and after Kareem’s back surgery at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.
Shanna Hassan is a slender widow in a black abaya from a village in southern Iraq. She doesn't speak English.
Johanna Clyborne is a lawyer from Minnetonka, her dark brown hair cut in a neat bob. She doesn't speak Arabic.
Yet for nine weeks this spring, their lives were intimately linked.
The Minnesota National Guard brought Hassan and her daughter, Lamyaa Kareem, to Minnesota for surgery on the teen's severely curved spine. They asked Clyborne, a major in the Minnesota National Guard, to host the family.
Clyborne, 35, grew up an Army brat. She had lived all over the world, but never in Iraq. Two thoughts crossed her mind as she mulled the request: one patriotic, one personal.
First, she was sick of bad news about Americans in Iraq and eager to be part of an uplifting story.
Second, she thought of her own daughter, Keira, 8. If she ever needed help in a distant country, Clyborne hoped another mother would open her heart and home.
"I wanted to teach my young daughter that we are blessed," she said. If she ever gets deployed, Clyborne wants Keira to understand why she has to go away to help rebuild a faraway country, where medical care is limited.
So she said yes.
Since then, family life has turned upside down.
Once, when Clyborne came home late, her weeping houseguests hugged and kissed her, thinking she had been killed. There have been practical misunderstandings over different ways of making tea and different ways of using the toilet.
But there have also been moments of pure sweetness. Hassan's pet name for Clyborne's daughter is michmich, Arabic for apricot.
Theirs is a story of medicine and war and politics and ultimately of two moms trying to do the right thing.
A daughter's problem
Hassan's home is Al-Harza, a village 15 miles outside Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
She is unsure of her own age, saying through an interpreter, "I don't know, maybe 50?"
Lamyaa, 18, is the youngest of her four children, with dark eyes and plump cheeks. Sequins glitter at the neckline of her robe. The curve in her back is visible only from the side.
In 1991, their village was bombed by U.S. forces after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Afterward, baby Lamyaa ate a handful of dirt in the rubble. Hassan recalls this as the moment her child was "poisoned," and her stomach began to swell.
She couldn't go to school or play outside. "Her stomach was this big," says Hassan, stretching out her arms. "We did not know if we would go to sleep and wake up and find her dead." In the next 15 years, the family took Lamyaa to four different Iraqi cities for surgery. None worked.
In 2003, Lamyaa went to the U.S. Army-run Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad. Doctors removed a benign tumor weighing almost 9 pounds. But Lamyaa's spine began curving like an old woman's.
Last year, when Dr. Kevin Murphy, a colonel with the Minnesota National Guard, examined her in Iraq, she had leg pain. Murphy worried if her spine collapsed further, it could affect her organs. He called his employer, Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare, to see if the St. Paul hospital would fix Lamyaa's spine for free. The answer was yes. Northwest Airlines donated a flight.
Life on tree-lined Hanus Road in Minnetonka was about to change in a big way.
Two cultures, one house
On March 13, the mother and daughter arrived in Minnesota.
Clyborne's husband, Duncan, was immediately banished to the bedroom because their guests came from a society where unrelated men and women do not mingle.
Lucky, the gregarious golden retriever -- as a dog considered unclean in Islam -- went to the neighbor's after the Iraqi women barricaded their bedroom door.
Pork, forbidden to Muslims, would no longer be on the dinner table.
The first night, Clyborne recalled thinking, "Oh my God. What did I get myself into?"
She struggled to fit her job at a law firm in between ferrying her guests to the hospital and the Holy Land deli in northeast Minneapolis.
Usually lacking an interpreter, the two moms resorted to miming. This is how you use a flush toilet. This is how to make tea. For chicken, they flapped their arms.
When an Arabic-speaking visitor told Clyborne, a Catholic, that the Iraqis were praying for her to have the good fortune of more children, she laughed: "I'm praying to God not to have more children!"
Once, the Americans coaxed the Iraqis out to play in the snow. Hassan built what was likely the first snow camel ever to grace a Minnetonka front yard. Lamyaa made a snow goat.
Other chasms were harder to cross. The Iraqis and their many visitors from the Twin Cities Muslim community often answered a question with Inshallah, or God willing.
"No! Not Inshallah!" Clyborne found herself saying in frustration. "Are you going to be here Sunday or not? Am I planning for extra burgers or am I not? Tell me yes or no."
Two moms wait
On the day of surgery, both moms were nervous.
Hassan stayed behind in the hospital room, Qur'an clutched in one hand and prayer beads in the other. Clyborne walked Lamyaa to the pre-op bay.
Lamyaa whimpered as the intravenous needle went in. "I gotcha, baby, I gotcha. Look at me, sweetie," Clyborne said.
"Tell her that was the worst part, please," she yelled to the interpreter on the other side of a curtain. The young Egyptian man interpreting tried to enter, but Clyborne blocked him. "I don't mean to yell at you," she said. "But my job is to protect her honor."
Still, even she couldn't protect Lamyaa from a routine pre-surgery question: Are you pregnant? "I'm not even married!" Lamyaa protested. "How can I be pregnant?"
After Lamyaa was wheeled to surgery, Clyborne went to find Hassan.
The American mom and the Iraqi mom looked at each other. "My daughter, too," Clyborne said, hand to her heart. "My daughter, too."
Lamyaa was having a spinal fusion, a surgery Gillette doctors perform more than 300 times a year, usually charging $120,000 each time. Last year, the hospital gave away $350,000 in charity care.
Dr. Steven Koop, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, made two incisions, one on Lamyaa's side and a longer one along her backbone. He and another surgeon separated her vertebrae before straightening her spine with two titanium rods. Sounds of hammering and crunching bone mixed with the Gregorian chants Koop had chosen for background music.
After working for seven hours, he was pleased. Lamyaa's spine wasn't straight, but it was better. With rods in, there was no chance it would collapse further.
Separate lives again
Four weeks after surgery, Lamyaa was doing well. She and her mother prepared to return to Iraq.
The long stay had forged bonds but frayed nerves for both moms. It was time to return to their separate lives.
Phone numbers and addresses were exchanged, though language may prove a barrier to future communication.
But for nine weeks, the needs of one mom met the generosity of another and gave a teenage girl a better chance in life.
At the Clyborne house, routines have slipped comfortably back to normal.
A pork roast was in the oven.
And Lucky was back home.
Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434
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