original url: http://www.jsonline.com/news/gen/feb05/305295.asp
soldier finds a purpose beyond serving his country while in iraq
by gina barton
posted: feb. 26, 2005
the first time capt. scott southworth visited the orphanage in baghdad, the little boy was drawn to him immediately.
everybody on the planet needs to feel special to somebody, and i could see that happening for him.
- capt. scott southworth
the boy, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk, half-crawled, half-dragged himself across the floor until he was seated at southworth's side, then gazed up at him with a crooked smirk.
"people ask me how i chose him, but i didn't. he chose me," southworth said.
it was september 2003, and southworth was in command of the wisconsin national guard 32nd military police company during its 14-month tour in iraq. their mission was to teach local police officers how to operate in a democracy. their visits to the orphanage for disabled children were a way for the soldiers to forget the hard times: the shellings, the car bombs, the attacks on the police stations where they worked. and southworth loved spending time with the little boy, ala'a.
southworth grew up in a military family, raised with love of god and country. he graduated from law school at the university of wisconsin with honors and planned to run for juneau county district attorney at the end of his deployment.
as for ala'a (pronounced "allah"), when he was 3 or 4, an iraqi police officer found him alone on the streets of baghdad. the officer brought him to the orphanage, run by the catholic missionaries of charity of mother teresa. by the time southworth started visiting him there, ala'a was about 10. the nuns who cared for him had taught him to pray and to speak english.
face to face, ala'a called southworth by his first name, scott. but the nuns told southworth they saw a stronger bond beginning to form. ala'a was always concerned about what he would wear when southworth came to visit. he was suddenly interested in learning to walk. at night when ala'a lay down in his crib, he would pray not for himself but for southworth, whom he felt was in danger. and when he talked about his new friend from america, he called him "baba," which means "daddy" in his native arabic.
"at first, it was just kind of cute, kind of nice," said southworth, 32, who felt more like ala'a's big brother than his father.
then he started to realize what a difference he was making in the boy's life. sure, ala'a had always been loved by the nuns, but they loved everyone. this little boy had likely been abandoned by his parents. he'd never had anyone to make him feel valuable as an individual. now, he did.
"everybody on the planet needs to feel special to somebody, and i could see that happening for him," southworth said.
in december, about three months after the two first met, the soldiers had a christmas party for the orphans. ala'a, who had been raised christian, giggled and prattled on about "baba noel" - father christmas - as he showed southworth the set of colorful blocks he'd received.
shortly after the party, one of the doctors who cared for the orphans told southworth that she was worried about ala'a's future. he was getting too big for the orphanage. in a year, he would have to move to a government-run home for the disabled, which housed adults and older children. southworth had heard about the home. by all reports, it was horrible. the doctor confirmed his fears.
"if he goes there, his life is over," the doctor said, speaking more than figuratively.
"then i'll adopt him," southworth said. the words came out in a rush. only after he'd spoken them did he begin to think things through. could he really adopt this boy? southworth started to pray, trying to figure out the lord's plan for him.
signs, hurdles, promises
the first sign he received was a bootleg dvd of "the passion of the christ," sent to a fellow soldier in a care package from home. the film's quality was poor, but its message was clear.
"i thought, 'if he can do that for me, surely i can (adopt ala'a).' "
every time a friend or family member pointed out one of the challenges, southworth thought about the distant future. he imagined meeting ala'a in heaven. in his vision, ala'a came to him and asked, "scott, why didn't you come back for me?" southworth went through all the answers. he pictured himself saying, "well, i didn't have a lot of money." or: "i'm a single guy, i don't know anything about taking care of a child with cerebral palsy." or: "i have a very demanding career."
"every time i thought of a reason, it quickly turned into an excuse, and i was absolutely ashamed and embarrassed," southworth said. "i thought, 'well, i can sacrifice a little bit here and make some adjustments, or i can spend the rest of my life ashamed and embarrassed.' "
the determination that had gotten southworth simultaneously through law school and national guard training now became focused on saving ala'a.
the roadblocks sprang up almost immediately. under iraqi law, foreign adoptions are not allowed. in the midst of leading a company in a war zone, southworth tried to figure out his other options. bribing a judge or threatening someone into letting him take ala'a probably would have worked, but there was no way he would go that route.
"i was over there teaching them about the rule of law. i had to show them that if you really wanted something, there was a (legitimate) way," southworth said.
he learned that to take an orphan from the country, he would need a letter from the child's official guardian, the iraqi minister of labor. southworth wrote a letter to the minister, asking that he be allowed to take ala'a to the united states for medical care. he was amazed when the minister agreed.
then he realized ala'a had no passport and couldn't get one in the current political climate. even if he could, the american government had not yet agreed to let him into the country.
as southworth prepared to leave baghdad in july 2004, he still hadn't worked out the details. he would have to leave ala'a behind. on his last visit to the orphanage, southworth told the boy he was headed for america. he didn't tell ala'a he hoped to adopt him. he didn't want to get his hopes up. instead, he told him he would come back to visit. even that was a promise he knew he might not be able to keep. his unit still had an arduous journey out of iraq, during which any one of them could be killed.
ala'a didn't cry.
"he had made a decision that i was his daddy and he had absolute faith that god was going to make it happen," southworth said.
a new home
by the time southworth returned to wisconsin, the campaign for juneau county district attorney was in full swing. he was released from active duty at midnight july 30, 2004. at 11 a.m. the next day, he was in his first parade. he won a three-way primary in september and was elected to the prosecutor's post in november.
along the way, he networked among attorney friends to find an immigration lawyer and settled upon laura danielson of the firm fredrikson & byron in minneapolis.
"they have a real heart for the disadvantaged in foreign countries, but they had never dealt with iraq before. it was a real challenge for them," southworth said.
with danielson's help, southworth was able to gain approval for ala'a to enter the united states temporarily under humanitarian parole, which is granted only in extremely rare cases.
"it's for situations where there is no other hope, no other chance, and you have to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances," southworth said.
just over a month ago, southworth returned to iraq to retrieve his foster son.
ala'a has settled in easily to the former bachelor pad southworth calls home. his new grandmother decorated a bedroom for him, complete with a red, white and blue bedspread and a yellowed american flag that hung in southworth's boyhood room. ala'a's deep brown eyes grow wide as southworth tosses him on the bed and tickles him.
"baba, are you ticklish?" he shrieks between giggles.
after enrolling ala'a in middle school, arranging for medical care and taking the little boy to "pooh's heffalump movie" on a friday night, southworth definitely feels like a father. he and ala'a both are optimistic that someday he will be allowed to take on the title permanently and legally in the eyes of both the united states and iraq.
"he has the true faith of a child," southworth said. "i think he knew what was going to happen."
from the feb. 27, 2005, editions of the milwaukee journal sentinel