Teeba; losing scars and shyness
Teeba came to the U.S. from Iraq in 2007 to receive treatment for burns to her face, neck and scalp. In 2003, a bomb tore through the taxi in which she and her family were riding, killing her younger brother.
It’s a scorching July afternoon and Teeba is catching up with her birth mother by telephone. It’s nearly midnight, Iraq time, but her mother is ecstatic to hear from her.
“I love you, Mom,” Teeba, now 10, tells her. Teeba is stunned to find out her biological parents, two sisters and brother have moved into a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house. She has never met her youngest sister, Mariam, age 4. “Can you send pictures of the house and my brothers and sisters?”
Teeba asks through an interpreter. At times she appears frustrated on the phone since she hasn’t spoken Arabic in 4 1/2 years and remembers very little of the language. But her other mother, Barbara, tries to make sure Teeba doesn’t go more than two weeks without talking to her parents in Iraq.
“I think it’s very important,” Barbara says. “I feel very close to her mother. It’s like this unspoken connection. I can’t wait to meet her. I’ve seen her on Skype.” As of Monday, it will be five years since Teeba came to live with the Marlowes. “It’s been the best five years of my life,” says Barbara, marketing director at Dworken & Bernstein law firm in Painesville.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs from worry and stress, but we love her like crazy. “There was a point about a year ago when her grandmother thought she should come back to Iraq. Teeba almost had a breakdown. Over there in Iraq, the grandparents can not only tell their own children what to do, but also their children’s children.”
Now, the Marlowes are confident that Teeba will stay with them for good even though in the Arabic culture, there is no such thing as adoption. “(Teeba’s mother) misses her terribly. She loves her madly. But she knows this is the best place for her,” says Barbara. “Their ability to embrace people with handicaps (in Iraq) isn’t as good as it is here. But I worry about her mom and how she must feel.”
Teeba will return to Andrews Osborne Academy in Willoughby in the fall as a fourth-grader. She proudly shows off the award-winning, framed artwork on display at her home that she made at school. Her close friend from school, Lily, is often a fixture at the Marlowe house. When asked what their favorite thing is to do together, the girls — who look like they could be sisters — reply, “Catch frogs!” in unison.
Three years ago, Teeba had already undergone 11 surgeries and had to begin her first day at her new school with a large tissue expander in her neck that looked like a balloon. The balloon was used to grow skin for her nose. Teeba was also self conscious then about not being able to grow hair like everyone else. She will most likely need wigs for the rest of her life.
But students at Andrews Osborne accepted her from the beginning, says Barbara. Lily is growing her own hair long enough so Teeba can use it for her next wig. As Teeba entertains a roomful of visitors with modern dances from India, Brazil and Africa, there is no trace of the shy girl she was when she first came to America.
After 16 surgeries, Teeba rarely has to endure the rude stares she faced when she first came here. “As soon as people get to know her, they don’t notice the scars anymore,” Barbara says. Eventually, Teeba will need touch-up work under her eye and lip, as well as laser resurfacing to even out her remaining scars.
Maria Dietz of Concord Township, a close family friend whom Teeba calls “Aunt Maria,” can’t believe what the surgeons — and the Marlowes — have been able to accomplish. “It’s been an amazing transformation in the past five years,” Dietz says.
“Tim and Barb are remarkable in what they’ve done. Her personality went from shy to very confident. The poor thing — all the bad things that happened to her, and she’s acclimated so beautifully. She just keeps cracking us up.” Tim, who owns the Grime Stoppers cleaning company, adds that Teeba has matured greatly in just the past few months. “She’s such a delight,” he says.
“It’s exciting to see the wonder in her eyes. She lives life to the fullest. She’s a dynamo, She’s always having fun, and most of it doesn’t involve TV.” The family’s interpreter, Samia Bishara of Mentor, has also grown close to Teeba and the rest of the Marlowes. “She got under my skin and in my heart, and she will always be there,” says Bishara.
“She’s a sassy little 10-year-old American kid who loves my Arabic cooking, especially lamb.” Teeba has also become quite the performer — whether it’s dancing in front of large crowds at festivals or making small groups erupt with laughter after good-naturedly teasing her mother about her job after shadowing her at work (“How do people dooooo that all day?” she asks Barbara after dramatically falling to the floor in mock boredom).
But she also has a serious, sensitive side that comes out in her writing. “Life will reward you if you do the right thing, even the hard and painful,” she writes in a speech she gave to 400 people at Rainbow Babies in which she thanked the doctors for saving her life. “It is amazing how people can be so mean, even if you do something very nice you can get your heart broken.
Because I am going through some tough times with my surgeries, sometimes I feel left out … because some people get afraid of me. “Sometimes they are not afraid but curious so I try to tell them but they just do not understand… Sometimes I get real mad but it is OK because I know the people I know love me with all their hearts. Love is the answer and people that care about you will really show it. Just look in that person’s eyes and you will know.”
Before Teeba gets off the phone with the mother she has not seen in five years, she sings her a song she wrote herself when she was 6. Teeba believes the song provides some comfort to the woman who made such an extreme sacrifice to give her a better life. “The sun will warm you up, and the rain will cool you down and the rainbow will keep your promises,” Teeba finishes singing softly before hanging up.
By Tracey Read