NEW HYDE PARK, N.Y., Feb. 26 -- In a light-filled lobby of a hospital for sick children, an American mother talked on Monday with an Iraqi father about how their lives had been altered and entwined by a war thousands of miles away.
Charlotte Freeman's husband, Capt. Brian Freeman, had been stationed in Iraq, where he worked to bring an 11-year-old Iraqi boy born with a rare heart defect to the United States for lifesaving surgery. That boy is Abu Ali's son.
Last week, the boy, Ali, had the surgery. It was successful, but the occasion turned out to be as painful as it was sweet.
On Jan. 20, the day Abu Ali learned that his long-awaited visas to the United States were likely to come, Freeman, 31, was kidnapped from his office by insurgents and later killed.
Ali has recuperated enough after his Feb. 20 surgery at Schneider Children's Hospital on Long Island to walk around in sandals. A gentle, shy, skinny boy with a megawatt smile, he says he wants to be a soccer star.
"This has been a gift for me," said Charlotte Freeman, 31, who flew in from California with her family this weekend to meet Abu Ali and his son and stay with them at the Ronald McDonald House. She smiled through tears at the boy. "Through Ali, Brian lives," she said.
Ali, the second of five children, was born with a hole between the two upper chambers of his heart, said Fred Bierman, the cardiology chief overseeing Ali's care. Ali's condition was diagnosed in 2005 in Iraq, his father said. Doctors said he would need surgery to survive into adulthood.
But the Iraqi medical system had collapsed, and this surgery was not available.
There was danger in asking for help from Americans and being branded "traitor" or "spy," said Abu Ali, 37, a stocky, gentle man with jet-black hair. He would not reveal his full name for fear of reprisals; his friends believe he is now in Amman, Jordan.
An athlete who trained with the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, Brian Freeman graduated from West Point in 1999. Then in fall 2005, a shortage of officers prompted a call-up of Brian's reserve section, even though many members had only a few months of service remaining.
Brian did not support the war in Iraq and had little desire to participate, Charlotte said. But he felt an obligation to carry the same burden as his West Point classmates.
When he left their home in Temecula, Calif., son Gunnar was nearly 3 and daughter Ingrid was a newborn. From Iraq, he would contact Charlotte every other day with a webcam. He loved it when she put Ingrid in front of the camera so he could watch her face change as she grew.
He didn't talk much about the dangers, Charlotte said; she learned about his close calls only later when she read his e-mails to friends.
As The Washington Post previously reported, he told Charlotte that the Iraqis "didn't want us there." And she knew in December when he cornered Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at a Baghdad helicopter landing zone and told them that the war was going badly.
But, as a civilian affairs officer, Freeman mainly concerned himself with purifying water and paving roads -- and his private, off-duty cause, a young boy named Ali.
Freeman arranged for sponsorship from Gift of Life International, a New York-based nonprofit that brings poor children with heart ailments to top hospitals.
Freeman also talked to Charlotte about long-term plans of starting a nonprofit to help Iraqi children seeking medical care abroad, a project she hopes to pursue.
On Monday, Ali's doctor said that the boy still has heart-rhythm problems but that his major trouble has been solved and he should be able to travel home in a few weeks.
Ingrid Freeman toddled to Abu Ali and offered a handful of Cheerios. He scooped her up and kissed her wispy hair.
Abu Ali hopes that his son will someday do humanitarian work of his own. But Ali's dreams for now are simple: "I want to stay in America."