Devastated by War or Disaster, Children Find Healing in New York

NEW YORK - Elissa Montanti can rattle off the stories without hesitation of the hundreds of wounded children who have come through the doors of her small New York charity to get medical help.

Marci, a five-year-old from Afghanistan, was shot in the face in a Taliban ambush. She lost her eye, and her father died trying to shield her.

Hamandani, nine, was hanging from a tree, trying not to be swept away in Indonesia's 2004 tsunami when he fell and crushed his arm.

And Sarki stumbled into a wood stove as a toddler living high in the Himalayas, a six-hour trek from the nearest passable road. Her burned arm healed into a frozen position, with a web-like hand.

They are among the more than 200 children injured in disaster or conflict and brought to the United States for surgery, prosthetics and other medical treatment, courtesy of Montanti's Global Medical Relief Fund (GMRF).

Almost all come more than once, especially when growing children need larger prosthetics, bringing the number of follow-up visits to about a thousand.

"All the kids are in my head and in my heart," said Montanti, who founded GMRF 20 years ago. "I love all of them.

"People say, 'Do you have kids?' and I say, 'Yeah, 200,'" she said with a laugh. "I look good for 200 kids."

Actually, those 200-plus children take a toll on Montanti, who puts them up in a four-bedroom house down the street from her own in the New York City borough of Staten Island.

"It's not 9 to 5," she told Reuters in a recent interview. "I'm up the street at 12, 1, 2 in the morning seeing who has a fever, who's got a cold."

And she gets some criticism.

"People say why don't you help kids here," she said. "These kids have no resources. Why shouldn't we help them? They don't have half of what we have."

GMRF has hosted children from the United States as well as 40 other countries, their lives shredded by war or calamity.

Some are missing limbs, and others are severely burned or disfigured. Some must be carried off airplanes when they arrive, she said.

Staying in New York City with Montanti, they are treated at no cost by the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia. Some also have been treated by New York's Northwell Health hospital.

'Healing and love'

The first to be helped by Montanti was a boy who lost both arms and a leg stepping on a landmine in Bosnia. Word spread, especially among U.S. soldiers who befriended young war victims and sought her help for them.

That brought her children like Ahmed, who lost his vision and an arm in an explosion in Iraq as he walked home from school at age seven.

This week, Montanti has four children with albinism from Tanzania who lost limbs in brutal attacks and need prosthetics.

Albinos in Tanzania are targeted for body parts, which are highly valued in witchcraft and can fetch a high price.

The four children are on a return visit, having first come to the United States and Montanti two years ago for care.

At the same time, she has three amputee children from Nicaragua - two teenage boys who lost limbs in car accidents and the mischievous seven-year-old Alexis Pineda who was born missing one arm below the elbow.

Alexis likes to show off that he is adept at tying his shoes without his prosthetic but with it, he can grab things and use scissors, his mother said through an interpreter.

""There are a lot of bullies. In Nicaragua, they look at him. It's hard," said his mother, Cristian Marcela Pineda, who accompanied him to New York from Managua. "Now they can look at him but at least he has another hand."

Daniel Solis, 14, who lost his leg in a hit-and-run accident in his Nicaraguan hometown of Masaya, grabbed Montanti in a hug as he practiced walking on his prosthetic.

"We are best friends," he said in Spanish.

As the children grow up and move on, they stay in touch, often on Facebook, where Montanti said she recently got birthday greetings from children she helped from Bosnia in 1998.

"In this little house with four bedrooms, there's a lot of healing and love that goes on under the roof," she said.

Source: Voice of America