On July 16, 2006, the life of an American woman named Barbara Marlowe changed forever. It all started with a photo in a newspaper.
“It was a Sunday, and as I was heading out the door for an afternoon of golf with my husband Tim, I picked up our local newspaper and scanned the headlines,” Barbara recalls in an email interview with The Epoch Times. “What caught my eye was a group of photos that told the story of children in Iraq that needed multiple surgeries, and couldn’t get them because the plastic surgeons were fleeing the country.”
“Remember in 2006, the United States was in a war in Iraq.”
It was the photograph of a little girl sitting on her father’s lap that tugged at Barbara’s heartstrings. The child was a 4-year-old girl named Teeba Furat Fadhil who had lost most of her hair, and her face was deeply scarred and disfigured.
“When Teeba was 19 months [old], she was traveling in a taxi with her father and her 3-year-old brother Yousef,” Barbara explains. “They ran over an IED. The explosion killed Yousef and severely burned Teeba’s face, head, and hands. Her father was left with minor injuries.”
Coming across this piece, Barbara could not walk away from the little girl’s plight. “I was so compelled by her eyes that I cut out the article and stuck it in my pocket,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t tell my husband what my plans were initially. Shocking isn’t it? Thankfully and gratefully, he is an awesome man.”
The article also mentioned that Teeba wanted a wig so that her schoolmates wouldn’t make fun of her in school. However, Barbara had a far greater act of kindness in mind than simply providing a wig for the little girl who had by then already stolen her heart.
A Soul-Stirring Journey
It was also during that time that Barbara’s friend had started to work with the University Hospitals of Cleveland. Thus she contacted University Hospital’s Rainbow Babies & Children’s Unit. The hospital, alongside a correspondent in Baghdad, responded to Barbara’s heartfelt request for help. The latter also agreed to talk to Teeba’s family to seek permission for Teeba to come to the United States.
“It took a year to get her here,” Barbara explains, “and there was an excessive number of hoops to jump through, plus the fact that we were at war and I had to navigate the political quagmire.”
However, looking back, it was all worth the effort.
Teeba still remembers arriving in Cleveland, Ohio. “I was so young when I came here,” she says, “and I had no idea that I would eventually be here for the rest of my life. I don’t think anyone did.”
Teeba said she remembered crying and not wanting to leave her family back home but was overcome with that emotion upon seeing her American mom, Barbara.
Describing the heartfelt moment when Teeba walked off the plane more than a decade ago, Barbara says: “[T]here was such a sense of relief, love, and energy, for both my husband and I. I had loved her from a picture and now standing before me was this precious little darling, scared, scarred, and exhausted. I just wanted to scoop her up and hug her,” she says. “But I knew I had to take things slowly.”
Life for Barbara and her family has changed dramatically after Teeba’s arrival. Their personal and social lives “came to a screeching halt” and the couple, who did not have children of their own, had to radically reassess their finances. However, from then on, the Marlowes’ home was reinvigorated with youthful energy.
“[W]e loved every moment,” Barbara shares. “I was now seeing the world through a different lens […] I became entrenched in a world of Barbies and Polly Pockets.”
The hardest challenge for the family, however, was that Teeba had to undergo numerous surgeries to repair the damaged skin on her face; 20, to date, over a 9-year period. The nervous child would fight with her anesthetist, as she wanted to know exactly what was being done and how.
“[P]air that with the fear and apprehension her Iraqi mother was going through and my inability to clearly communicate to her in one common language,” Barbara says, “[it] was heart wrenching.”
However, with the power of faith, the family went through all the challenges that they were faced with.
“I have always felt that God sometimes puts blinders on you. And I feel He did with us,” Barbara reflects, speaking of the personal philosophy that helped her family navigate through the tough times. “For whatever miraculous reason, we were able to only focus on what was before us, one month at a time.”
Aside from all the adversities they faced together, Barbara also shares her fonder memories of life with Teeba, such as recalling joyous birthday parties, teaching Teeba to ride a bike, and Christmas mornings.
Reminiscing one special moment, Barbara shares, “One [memory] in particular was the day she called me ‘Mom,’” Barbara adds. “She had asked for permission from her parents in Iraq and they heartily agreed. I was so overcome with emotion. I never thought I would hear those words.”
The Special Reunion
For 10 years after Teeba’s arrival in the United States, the Marlowes had kept in touch with Teeba’s biological mother, Dunia, via phone, Facetime, and Skype. However, it wasn’t the same as seeing her in person.
In 2015, family friends helped the Marlowes to arrange for Teeba’s family to leave Iraq. Barbara, Tim, and Teeba journeyed to the Middle East, and the most awaited reunion happened in Dubai.
“All I wanted was for [my birth mother] to think I was pretty and all this was worth it,” Teeba recalls, admitting she was nervous before the reunion. “What would she think of me and would she approve of me? But the moment she walked into the room, all the fears disappeared and my worlds collided.”
“It was a dream I had for a long time, and it was finally happening,” Teeba further adds.
Barbara harbored nerves of her own, but recalling meeting Teeba’s birth mother for the first time, she says: “It was definitely the most emotional and most beloved time ever.”
The meeting cemented a lifelong friendship. “Her mom is my other half,” Barbara says, “in fact we call her each the ‘Ameri-Iraqi Mom.’ I try to speak with her at least once a week, or even daily through texting emojis.”
Barbara hopes the families will be able to organize another reunion in the near future.
After Teeba had been with the Marlowes for just over a year, the family was approached by People magazine to feature in their “Heroes Among Us” segment. The editor even approached a literary agency in New York, thinking the family’s story would make for a wonderful book.
“[The agency] agreed,” Barbara explains, “but asked the all-important question: What’s the middle, what’s the ending?” However, the project was shelved while Teeba’s journey continued.
Years later, Barbara resurrected the book proposal and reconsidered it, especially after their heartwarming reunion in Dubai.
“What came to me,” she says, “was that now this book could be written from three voices, Teeba, her mom in Iraq, and me. We could provide Teeba with her history that she would have for generations to come.”
A Brave Face: Two Cultures, Two Families, and the Iraqi Girl Who Bound Them Together was released in hardcover in March 2019. Barbara, Teeba, and Barbara’s writer friend Jennifer Keirn collaborated on what would prove to be “an extremely emotional undertaking.”
“What the reader will read, these things really did happen,” Barbara says. “No exaggeration, no literary license. All truth.”
As for readers’ feedback, Barbara says it has been phenomenal. “[W]hat really moves me are the huge numbers of people that have reached out to me personally,” she says, “crying and telling me about their God moments as well as how touched they were by our journey. We’ve been getting calls and notes from all over the world!”
Looking to the future, it is Barbara’s hope that she and her husband live long enough to see 17-year-old Teeba realize her dream of becoming a doctor, as well as a wife and mother. “I pray God keeps us healthy,” Barbara says. “But more importantly, I pray for the safety and future of her family in Iraq.”
“I’ve wanted to be a doctor for many years,” Teeba, who has thrived academically, says. “I want to help children, so my first choices were a pediatric anesthesiologist (because I was always so afraid, I thought I could be helpful) and now I am looking at being an obstetrician.”
“I also want to open a free clinic in the Middle East, preferably in Iraq,” the teen adds. “I want to pay it forward. I have been blessed.”