Injured In Battle, Libyans Recuperate In U.S. Hospital

Dec 26, 2011

Libya's civil war toppled a dictator and put the country on a path to democracy, but many of the rebel fighters who helped create that change are still recovering from battle injuries. Spaulding Hospital in Salem, Massachusetts, near Boston, is treating about two dozen of them — the only hospital in the country providing this kind of care.

Handwritten signs in Arabic are hung in a physical therapy room at the hospital, where several Libyan patients are getting rehab for injuries to their shoulders, hands and arms.

Marwan Mafud, 22, is a former mechanic who said he drove supplies to the rebels. His fingers are crooked and extensively scarred, and some of his fingernails are just stubs.

He said the late Moammar Gadhafi's militia smashed his fingers with the butt of a Kalashnikov rifle.

"And after that, I got hit on my head, and my legs. It was very painful and severe," he said through a translator. "It was an open wound, actually, and you [could see] the bones of my fingers."

Five months later, he still can't bend some of them. Now, Libya's Transitional National Council is paying for his and the other fighters' medical care.

Ramzi Ben-Rahhal is 35 and has a long, fresh gash of a scar crisscrossing his upper arm and elbow. One word describes how it got there: gunshot.

"Special sniper bullets — it has chemicals inside it," he said through a translator.

He's now being treated for nerve damage, and Spaulding Hospital is trying to make him and the other Libyan patients feel more at home by providing Arabic television, a Muslim prayer room, and Middle Eastern foods like pita bread and olives. There are even small sticky notes with English words written on them scattered around the hospital to help the Libyan patients learn terms for common objects: window, counter, table. For Ben-Rahhal, a former landscape architect, it's all a bit surreal.

"I was a civilian, innocent. And actually, unfortunately, I turned to be a fighter," he said through a translator. "I killed people and I saw a lot of people killed around me. And now I came here to the hospital and I'm starting to heal."

He is healing both his body and his mind, he said. One of the people helping him do that is Dr. Ryan Zaklin. Treating these Libyan patients, Zaklin said, has pushed him to ask himself a question: If we had a dictator here in the United States, would he pick up a machine gun with his neighbors and fight for what he felt was right?

"I don't know the answer to that," Zaklin says. "Hopefully I'll never need to know the answer to that. But certainly I admire their courage and their bravery for standing up for what they believe in."

He said it has startled him to realize that these were just typical Libyans with regular jobs whose lives suddenly turned upside down.

"They're just like us. I mean, they have smart phones and they have laptops. They're on Facebook. They're very intelligent and very well-educated," he says.

And some of them, despite their injuries, are now having a quintessentially American experience — one that isn't all rehab all the time. Ben-Rahhal, for example, often straps a splint on his arm and heads out to explore the area.

"I go outside by myself; I go to the mall," he explained through a translator.

He pulled a folded note out of his wallet that he said he gives to taxi drivers. It has Arabic on top, and then it says, 'North Shore Mall. I would like to go to the mall.' And, he said with a laugh, he's been doing a lot of shopping.

He smiles when he notes that — unlike in Libya — the only time he's been asked to show his identification here was when he tried to buy cigarettes.

"Since I am here, no one has asked me for any checkpoint or to check my I.D. Quite the opposite — they are very helpful. They tell me, 'If you need us, if you need help, please call 911,' " he said.

He also said he likes American restaurants, and he thinks diversity in this country is effortless. From his vantage point, no one here seems to be treated differently because of their language or skin color. He also admires the U.S. political system. He described it as "advanced" compared to Libya's.

"In our culture we say one thing about the American nation: 'You live your heaven on Earth in the States," he says through the translator.

Of the 22 Libyans who came to Spaulding Hospital in late October, 16 are still there and the rest are expected to be discharged by February. Most of them will return to Libya, although exactly what their futures hold is unclear — even though many of them say they wish this could be their new home.

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