Author: Blankenship, Janie
Date published: February 1, 2010
When Capt. Scott Southworth told his friends and family he planned to adopt a son, they weren't quite as excited as he thought they might be. Some thought the Iraq vet was suffering from combat stress. What else would make the Wisconsin National Guardsman want to adopt a disabled 9-year-old Iraqi boy?
Southworth, a member of Post 8320 in Mauston, Wis., was serving in Baghdad in 2003 as commander of the 32nd Military Police Company. His unit trained Iraqi policemen. About six months into his 13-month tour, his unit began making regular visits to a Baghdad orphanage.
Southworth was quickly befriended by a little boy named Ala'a, who couldn't walk due to cerebral palsy. The child had been brought in when he was only 3 after being abandoned by his family in the city streets.
At the Mother Teresa Orphanage, Ala'a learned limited English and was raised a Christian. He began to refer to Southworth as baba, which is Arabic for daddy.
After a few months of visiting the orphanage, Southworth found out that the young Iraqi would be moved the next year to a government-run home for the disabled, a place about which he had heard horrible stories.
"Nothing about my decision made sense without understanding that 1 absolutely knew it was God's will for me to save Ala'a from going to the government orphanage," said Southworth, now serving as district attorney for Juneau County in Wisconsin.
Southworth left Iraq in July 2004, but told Ala'a he would come back for a visit. He didn't tell him of his plans to try and adopt him in case it didn't work out.
After months of working with immigration lawyers, the Department of Homeland Security and the Iraqi government, Southworth was granted permission to bring Ala'a to the U.S. for medical care in early 2005. He was later granted legal guardianship and was finally able to adopt him in June 2007.
But it was not an easy process. In order to take an orphan from the country, Southworth first had to obtain a letter from the Iraqi Minister of Labor and was amazed when he agreed to it.
He had to get the Department of Homeland Security to grant Ala'a humanitarian parole status, used in extreme circumstances. Southworth got an area doctor, a cerebral palsy expert and a Minneapolis hospital to all agree to provide free care for Ala'a. Multiple letters of support ranging from Wisconsin's lieutenant governor to an Iraqi doctor were provided, as well.
"It was a long, but very rewarding process," Southworth said. "He's now a U.S. citizen and takes that very seriously. He loves everything about America. He loves having a family and being special to someone."
Around the same time Southworth adopted Ala'a, pictures surfaced of severely handicapped orphaned boys, naked and hungry. Some were tied to their beds in a government-run orphanage in Iraq. Southworth recognized some of them from his visits to the Mother Teresa Orphanage.
Since that time, he's been working to get those boys to the U.S. for medical treatment and hopefully adoption. He said the Iraqi government is not reacting positively, which has stalled the process.
As for Ala'a, now 15, he's enjoying school and his new friends. He likes to teach his friends Arabic and loves the Wisconsin snow. He rarely mentions Iraq, except to say that he might like to go back and visit sometime.
"I would like for him to see the sisters of the Mother Teresa Orphanage again someday," says Southworth, "so they can see the fruits of their labors. They worked so hard to help Ala'a have a better life."