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Iraqi Orphan Adoption
February 1, 2008    Episode no. 1122
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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, the story of a Wisconsin National Guard officer who saw combat in Iraq but who also discovered a young Iraqi orphan crippled with cerebral palsy -- a 10-year-old boy who faced a life of loneliness and suffering. After his tour of duty, Captain Scott Southworth returned home to Wisconsin but could not forget about the boy named Ala'a. Lucky Severson tells us what happened.

Captain SCOTT SOUTHWORTH (Iraqi War Veteran, speaking into home video camera): So here we go. Mission or Operation Rescue Ala'a is in play, and we're off to Baghdad.

LUCKY SEVERSON: This was Scott Southworth's second journey to Baghdad. The first time, he was a captain in command of the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Military Police Company. The Pentagon honored him with the prestigious General Douglas MacArthur Award for exceptional leadership. But it wasn't the Pentagon that was sending Southworth back to Iraq this time.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: As to hearing God's voice physically, you know, I have never heard "Scott, this is God," you know. I've never received a letter from God. But it was very clear in my heart what I was supposed to do.
Captain Scott Southworth

(on plane): It's kind of interesting, but it's kind of good to be back in a way.

SEVERSON: Odd that someone who experienced the terror of war would look forward to going back to Baghdad.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: Well, without getting into great detail I can tell you that our company was brutally attacked many times. We saw things and experienced things that I hope nobody ever experiences.

SEVERSON: Partly to escape the horror, Scott and some members of his company volunteered their spare time in Baghdad at the Mother Teresa orphanage for mentally and physically handicapped kids. That was where Scott met Ala'a, then a little 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Iraqi police found Ala'a abandoned on the street when he was a toddler.
" It started out like a big brother type thing, and it quickly progressed to Ala'a calling him, you know, dad."

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: And he took his arms and he pulled himself from one side of the room to where I was sitting and got himself all set up and then began to talk to me in English. So when people ask me, "Why, of all the kids in the orphanage, did you choose him," I didn't. He chose me, and we had an initial bond that was just amazing.

SEVERSON: Kerry Otwaska was in Southworth's National Guard company.

KERRY OTWASKA: It started out like a big brother type thing, and it quickly progressed to Ala'a calling him, you know, dad.

SEVERSON: The Mother Teresa orphanage is a country club compared to the one for handicapped orphans operated by the government, where American soldiers recently rescued kids living in terrible conditions.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: We knew what that orphanage in Baghdad was like. I had never been there personally, but I knew that Ala'a's best case scenario if he went to that orphanage was to stare at a blank wall for the rest of his life and hope that someone came to change his diapers.
Kerry Otwaska

SEVERSON: So when the nuns informed him that in a few months Ala'a, because of his age, was to be sent to the government orphanage --

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: And it was just an immediate response. I mean, when I saw immediate, they told me and I immediately looked over and said "then I'll adopt him." And I was resolute and unwavering. But I hadn't considered all the consequences.

SEVERSON: Not only was he not married, he had no prospects at the time and no training on how to care for a seriously handicapped child with an incurable disease.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: I mean I didn't have a house. I didn't even have an apartment. I didn't have the money to be able to take care of a disabled child.

SEVERSON: Southworth made the decision to go back to Iraq after putting together this scenario in his head.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: I'm in heaven and Ala'a's in heaven and I'm standing there talking with Ala'a, having not went back and got him. And I imagine saying to him in the presence of Christ, "Here's the reasons why I couldn't do it." And every one of the excuses that I came up with were reasons -- were just excuses. And I felt incredibly ashamed, and so I thought to myself, "Then there's only one answer: go get him!"

SEVERSON: After his tour of duty, Southworth returned to Wisconsin, ran for Juneau County district attorney, and won, all the while working every angle he could to get Ala'a to the U.S. When he finally got approval from Homeland Security to bring Ala'a to the U.S., Southworth called Ala'a in Baghdad.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: I asked him where he was at, what had he done that day. He said, "Well, I was praying." I said, "Oh," to make conversation. "What were you praying for?" He said, "I prayed that you would come and take me to America. Sorry -- it was -- I almost dropped the phone.

SEVERSON: A few days later Scott and Ala'a hooked up at the Baghdad airport and headed for home. Operation Rescue Ala'a was nearly complete. Before long, Ala'a was in school, a big fan of the Green Bay Packers, in many ways a typical American kid.

(to Ala'a): What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you know?

ALA'A: I'm hoping to get hired for the weather, 'cause I love studying about the weather.

SEVERSON: Last year, Scott became Ala'a's legal father. The family's pastor, Paul Shirek, with the Faith Christian Church, attended the adoption proceedings.

Pastor PAUL SHIREK (Faith Christian Church): The judge looked at Scott and asked him about are you prepared to take that son for who he is? And with tears in his eyes he said yes.
Pastor Paul Shirek

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: The word "love" has been misconstrued by our culture to mean a feeling. "I love you" in the context of Christianity, in the context of Judaism, in the context of Islam -- love is not an emotion, love is action.

SEVERSON: Both Scott and Ala'a are deeply religious non-denominational evangelicals. Scott grew up in a religious household. Ala'a studied English and Christianity while he was in the orphanage.

ALA'A: We like to visit with God every Sunday.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: When God calls you to do something, he also paves the way to make it possible. He doesn't do it for you, but he's opened all the doors necessary for us to be able to be a father and son.

SEVERSON: His pastor says Ala'a's adoption has already influenced his congregation.

Pastor SHIREK: I see in our own church family, he's inspired several others to adopt. We have several families that have already adopted or are in the process of adopting people that were in the foster care program that were considered high risk, people with special needs.

SEVERSON: Scott and members of his National Guard company are now trying to get permission to bring 21 handicapped orphans to the U.S. for medical treatment. They're running into mountains of red tape from the Iraqi and American governments, but Scott is convinced that the Lord has a mission for him, that Ala'a was only the beginning, and he's not about to give up.

Mr. OTWASKA: He's one of the people that once he starts something you know it's going to get done or it's going to kill him working on getting it done.

ALA'A: We have plans to get the kids out of Iraq.

SEVERSON: I heard about that.

ALA'A: And we are trying so hard. It's just -- God has got to work really hard on this one.

SEVERSON: Meanwhile, reality has set in. Southworth, a single parent, has become a loving father who devotes most of his free time caring for his handicapped son.

Capt. SOUTHWORTH: I don't view getting, you know, waking in the middle of the night because he has the flu, or having to take him to the bathroom, or holding him during a thunderstorm because he has such severe post traumatic stress disorder that thunderstorms remind him of bombs. I don't view any of that as a sacrifice. I view it as a privilege that I get to be the one to be involved as his father in his life.

SEVERSON: Southworth now has a serious girlfriend and says everything about his life is better since he adopted Ala'a. Now he and his son are waiting for word that Ala'a has become a U.S. citizen.

ALA'A: Hopefully it's pretty soon 'cause I'm hoping to stay here with my father.
How can we improve our program or Web site?

SEVERSON: I think you'll end up staying here with your father, pretty sure about that.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I'm Lucky Severson in Mauston, Wisconsin.

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