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One boy’s journey out of Africa

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – The boy tears open his shirt to reveal a mesh of scars that spread across his stomach like a spider web.”I am Opiyo,” he cries, pounding his chest, eyes defiant.”I am Opiyo Ivan.”It is a declaration of pride and of power. Opiyo – survivor of war, survivor of hunger, survivor of two very different worlds.Look at me, this child demands, whether begging on the streets of a refugee camp in Uganda or strutting before neighbors in his new American home.Always, people look.In Africa, where Opiyo was beaten by street gangs and mocked as crazy, where even doctors said he was too unruly to treat, the 10-year-old might eventually have perished on the streets.And then an American woman walked into his life and saw potential – and love.Jeannette Quinn had no intention of saving an African boy when she traveled to Uganda last year. Now the 45-year-old Massachusetts woman believes it was destiny. For Quinn knows what it is like to feel discarded as a child, to have survived by her own wits and the kindness of strangers.It has been a remarkable odyssey from Gulu, Uganda, to Northampton, Mass., and a remarkable convergence of two complex lives.Nothing has gone as planned.For in America, where he is on a temporary medical visa, Opiyo’s fate is as uncertain as it was in Africa. Doctors say Opiyo will be crippled if his bones keep growing inside his burned skin. He needs surgery to strengthen his atrophied arms and skin grafts to replace dead skin.Most important, he needs psychiatric help.Opiyo doesn’t know enough English to describe the rebel ambush that nearly killed him and his family four years ago. Even among native Acholi speakers, he refuses to talk about what he witnessed.And so, when Opiyo gets frustrated or sad, he kicks and howls and hisses and bites. He has run through streets in Northampton, naked, begging for food. He has crouched in corners like a wild animal.He knows an ambulance will eventually arrive if he screams long enough. He knows in hospital a nurse will stick a needle into his thigh and he will fall into a deep, blissful sleep.He doesn’t know that outside his hospital room, Quinn will break down herself, tears of frustration and exhaustion streaming down her face.”What will become of this boy?” she has sobbed, over and over.It is a question Quinn has been asking since the day she met Opiyo on a dusty street in Gulu in June 2006. Quinn, a sometime volunteer at a center for injured children, was sipping coffee at a cafe when the boy approached. Shirtless and barefoot, he wore filthy pants tied with string.”Dek,” he pleaded, the Acholi word for food.But he disappeared down an alley before she could speak with him.There were many needy children combing the streets of Gulu.But it was the burned beggar boy that Quinn couldn’t get out of her head.Locals directed her to the Limo IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp where Opiyo’s family had moved after rebels attacked their village several years earlier.Through an interpreter, Opiyo’s father, Mwaka Francis, told her about the ambush in which a cauldron of boiling water fell on the boy.Every day Quinn would visit Opiyo (he calls himself Opiyo Ivan, though his full name is Opiyo Ivance). She brought toys and food and an Acholi bible that he treasures.Opiyo began calling Quinn “Mommy Jeannette.” She began thinking of him as “my boy.”Quinn found lawyers to help with immigration and guardianship. Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston agreed to perform surgery free of charge.She got a temporary medical visa at the U.S. Embassy and letters from Opiyo’s parents handing her temporary guardianship, approved by courts in both countries.On Nov. 28, 2006, Quinn and Opiyo landed at Bradley International Airport and drove to their new life in Northampton.There, everything spun out of control.Life in America was baffling for a boy who didn’t speak English and who had never seen snow. He was cold. He missed Africa. He didn’t understand closets, or bathrooms, or why anyone would keep a dog as a pet.While Opiyo quickly discovered the joys of his new country – Chicken McNuggets, basketball, balloons – he chafed at any kind of structure or routine.So he snarled at Zoe, who cowered whenever the boy stomped into the room. He screamed for food. He hit Quinn and kicked her. He stole her money and keys. Once he tried to choke her. At school, he threw rocks at the terrified staff. He was banned from the YMCA.At Shriners, doctors said Opiyo was suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, and needed intense psychiatric treatment in order to undergo surgery, and the lengthy recuperation that would follow.But as life became a series of crisis calls to social workers and emergency room visits, Quinn despaired.She couldn’t find programs geared for an African boy on a medical visa who needed psychiatric help. She contacted residential programs in various hospitals but none could take him. Bring him back to Uganda, seemed to be the underlying message.Finally, that is what she decided to do.On March 20, 2007, as Quinn and Opiyo were in Kennedy airport about to board a plane, he bit her hand and dashed away. He raced through the food court, tearing off his clothes. Eventually, a naked, screaming Opiyo was surrounded by the National Guard, restrained by medical staff and taken from the airport in an ambulance.Opiyo spent the next five weeks in a psychiatric ward at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn.Quinn worries all the time about her ability to single-handedly take care of Opiyo.”I love this boy,” she said. “But I am not certain I am able or prepared to do what it takes for this boy. In many ways he is a stranger to me.”She is sitting on her porch outside her apartment. It is June and Opiyo is at a special school.Since his release from Brookdale, Opiyo has had several more episodes where police were called and he was whisked to the emergency room.Later, Opiyo has another breakdown. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital in Westwood and later transferred to Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke.Quinn visits every day. She says Opiyo is thriving in a hospital setting, with a team of psychiatrists and therapists who are working with him.She says she has high hopes.And yet Quinn cannot help but catch herself, every day, shaking her head and wondering – what will happen next?What will become of this boy?


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