Opiyo’s Tragedy: Lost In Translation

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Outcries from the American media circuit about “abominable� and “deplorable� social and economic conditions facing Africa’s children has led entertainment entities like Bono and American Idol to organize fundraisers to fight African poverty.

Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Madonna also responded by adopting their very own “African child.� Everyday Americans, with good intent, have stepped up to help carry Africa’s cross—yet what happens when this serious problem is seen by some as an exciting trend or fad, much like owning a pair of last season’s Milano boots or a cute little Chihuahua. 

Last fall, an American woman of modest means brought an eight-year old Ugandan boy with severe war injuries to the United States saying she wanted for him to get surgery.

Opiyo Ivance, from Gulu town, in the war-devastated part of Uganda, suffered severe burns on his arms and chest three years ago: Reportedly rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked his home. When his mother was shot, she dropped the boy in boiling water while trying to flee. Both mother and Opiyo –then five years old – survived. Opiyo’s healed scar tissues now constrict movement –he can’t raise his arms above his shoulders. While Opiyo’s bones continue to grow, his skin can’t stretch.

Uganda media reported that as a result of Opiyo’s severe wounds, which in addition to his arms cover his entire chest and abdomen, he was stigmatized. The boy was teased; even family members shunned him. Opiyo became a panhandler on the streets of Gulu.

Jeanette Quinn, a 45-year-old adult student at Smith College in Massachusetts learned of Opiyo’s plight when she visited Gulu last year summer. She made arrangements to bring him to the United States, taking him to her home in Northampton, Massachusetts, last fall.

After Quinn publicized Opiyo’s plight last fall in Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette, African and Caribbean students at Smith College held a fundraiser on November 4th 2006, for Opiyo’s care. The Northampton community was also touched and contributed $10,000.

Quinn enrolled Opiyo at Bridge Street School in Northampton, but became frustrated because he wasn’t learning English as quickly as she’d anticipated—so she pulled him from school, much to the frustration of school’s teachers and the principal.

A Northampton resident who is familiar with the school system’s attempt to integrate Opiyo says Quinn’s expectations were unreasonably high. Quinn hadn’t made any  adequate preparation for the extra care that Opiyo would need for his education and seemed more eager for media attention, the source says. “Opiyo is so amazing. He’s one of those kids that can easily adapt. The only thing is there was too much pressure on him—that can make him crumble.�

“It is a long sad story but we all came to the same conclusion that all this was never about the child Opiyo—no it was about Ms. Quinn,� says this source. “We were helpless to do anything because Quinn has legal guardianship.�

Quinn had contacted prestigious Boston Shriners Children’s Hospital, which agreed to perform surgery on Opiyo– the first of several that he will need for as long as he continues to grow, at no cost. When Opiyo was taken for his pre-surgery evaluation, he “acted up� and was “not communicative� to the nurses and doctors, Quinn says.

How can an eight year old boy, traumatized by Uganda’s brutal civil war, who doesn’t speak English communicate?

Dr. John Levine, a psychiatrist at Shriner’s who examined Opiyo earlier this year seemed to be more in line when he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that Opiyo suffered trauma from the burns and homelessness. “We really don’t know what his personality is like. At this point all we are seeing is stress.�

I became involved in Opiyo’s plight a few weeks ago when I received a call from Becky Odyek, a fellow Ugandan from Gulu, who lives here in New York. Becky is a social services worker with New York’s Coler-Goldwater Hospital, part of the HHC system. Brookdale Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn wanted Acholi speakers to help communicate with Opiyo.

By the time I was called, a local Uganda newspaper had reported that Opiyo had been hospitalized at Brookdale after having suffered a mental “breakdown.� I was appalled that an eight-year-old boy who had been brought from to this foreign unfamiliar environment could be characterized in that manner.

When Quinn became frustrated with the pace in which Opiyo was adapting and after the episode at Shriners she decided to pack the boy’s things and take him back to Uganda—the journey ended at JFK International Airport on March 20.

According to Quinn – and I am always very reluctant to ever accept one-side of a story – Opiyo “acted up,� bit her hand and “got away.� By the time she caught up with Opiyo, he had been cleaning up tables after diners at the airport restaurants—and he had been generously tipped. How could Opiyo be allowed to panhandle at JFK?

When it was time to board the Uganda flight, according to Quinn, Opiyo resisted and “acted up.� Someone called 911 and the poor boy was soon surrounded by New York Police—Opiyo was placed in a straightjacket and taken to Jamaica Hospital, in Queens, New York.

At Jamaica Hospital, the terrified boy kept crying in Acholi “Muno neka do! Muno neka do!� meaning “Whites are killing me! Whites are killing me!� Doctors, not understanding what must have sounded like a strange tongue, sedated the boy repeatedly. He was placed in the jurisdiction of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), a New York City agency, and later transferred to Brookdale.

Someone at Jamaica Hospital eventually called the Ugandan Permanent Mission to the United Nations, in New York. The Mission wanted nothing to do with the matter. The Mission volunteered the name of Becky, who then invited my involvement. When Becky first saw Opiyo at Jamaica hospital he was still crying “Muno neka do!� Heavily sedated, he was incoherent. “I told the doctors that they not inject him with whatever it is so I could talk to him,� Becky recalls.

When I met Opiyo at Brookdale, I found him to be wonderful, energetic and intelligent. Unlike other children there, he shuns television and insists on drawing for visitors, and writing down numbers. “Opiyo likes numbers,� he boasts, with the little English he’s picked. He also hopes to play basketball—hopefully he’ll get the surgery to enable that.

Opiyo’s been at Brookdale since March 23. Becky and I have visited him, as have other Ugandans in the New York, including Robin Okello, Judith Abe, Bishop Ogwal, and Olara Otunnu, the former United Nations Under-Secretary General for children in war zones. Communicating with Acholi speakers has improved Opio’s morale and state of mind. Opiyo asks visitors to bring him stew chicken and chapati, the Indian bread, which is popular in Uganda. Becky has been like a Mother Theresa to Opiyo, visiting almost daily.

Opiyo has been severely traumatized and of course being in an alien environment he may adopt defensive mechanisms, such as shouting or lashing out, Becky adds. Doctors and social workers at Brookdale say he is extremely intelligent and will thrive with the proper environment.

Opiyo has tried to adjust to his strange environment by teaching the young patients there how to sing in Kiswahili and in Acholi. He shows them photographs of himself with relatives in Uganda from a picture album he’s held on to. He speaks in halting English, mingled with Acholi and hand motions—he’s popular and two social workers have even offered to adopt him.

Now back to Jeanette Quinn: She does not speak Acholi and clearly didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to care for a boy with Opiyo's severe trauma. During her visits to Brookdale, it’s been clear that she can’t meet the challenges alone. What’s more, she doesn’t have the financial resources to meet the needs. In an interview earlier this year, she told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “I’m spending almost 24-7 with him and it’s really wearing me down.� Additionally, in an e-mail message to friends Quinn said she lived in “mortal� fear of Opiyo when they lived together. She’s also complained that Opiyo didn’t get along with her dog.

After reading news accounts of the airport incident, a Northampton resident who is familiar with attempts to educate Opiyo in the school system there says, “I spent a very long night thinking and worrying about that report and how much sedation he had been given at the hospital.� She adds of Opiyo, “That poor child had been screwed in the name of saving him.�

Brookdale is planning to release Opiyo on May 7 to Jeanette Quinn, the same woman who pulled him from the school and who was about to board him on a plane back to Uganda where he would again probably be shunned, vilified, and again reduced to begging. Moreover, in Uganda, some of Opiyo’s relatives, including his mother, live in one of those concentration camps created by Uganda's U.S.-backed dictatorship, ostensibly to separate civilians from rebels—the United Nations report that nearly 1,000 people die of starvation and diseases there.

After learning that Opiyo will be released to Quinn, another Northampton resident says:  “That child cannot be put through that same pain again. We will fight it in the courts if need be.�

Brookdale must keep Opiyo until he can be placed with a suitable guardian, preferably an Acholi speaker – there are many willing in the New York area or a relative should be brought from Uganda -- to facilitate communication with educators, care givers and medical personnel. This way, he eventually can get the surgery he needs while in the US.

Additional editing by Chichi Nwoko.

Note: Readers please call New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 311; those outside New York call (212) NEW-YORK and ask the mayor to order ACS and Brookdale to protect Opiyo. Those who have suggestions on how to help can also contact The Black Star News through
milton@blackstarnews.com or (212) 4812-7745.


With Ugandan Boy’s Scars, Hidden Woes

Published in the Times: May 2, 2007

The standoff near a security checkpoint at Kennedy International Airport on March 20 left passengers agape.

Jeannette Quinn, 45, met Opiyo Ivance last summer in a Ugandan city. Doctors say the boy has complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Opiyo Ivance, now 8, was burned during a rebel conflict in Uganda. On one side of a makeshift barrier squatted an 8-year-old African boy, naked except for one sock, his torso crosshatched with pinkish scars, his arms partly bound to his chest by flaps of skin. On the other side stood a row of police officers and National Guard members, seemingly flummoxed.

For an hour, the boy barely moved except to periodically throw things at his horrified American guardian, a woman in her 40s. He did not speak. “They didn’t know what to do with him,� said Michael Rohatyn, a musician from Manhattan on his way to Ireland who witnessed the scene. “Everyone was staring.�

The boy is now in a psychiatric ward at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn. He is a Ugandan named Opiyo Ivance, injured in a rebel conflict in his home country. His breakdown at the airport was only one stop in the middle of a long and painful journey.

Opiyo’s guardian, a Smith College student named Jeannette Quinn, 45, met him on a street in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu last summer and felt compelled to help him. Her impulse was not unusual. American travelers to poor countries often wish they could save the desperate children they encounter. News accounts of children plucked from war-torn homelands and whisked to the United States for medical care make it seem almost simple.

But though Opiyo is often sweet and affectionate, his psychic scars have kept him from getting treatment for his physical ones. When he was 5 years old, Opiyo was accidentally dropped in a cauldron of boiling water by his mother after she was shot in the chest by rebel soldiers, Ms. Quinn said. His mother survived but his family has largely rejected him, Ms. Quinn said. He survived on the streets of Gulu, Ms. Quinn said, by showing strangers his webbed torso and begging for money.

Ms. Quinn was in Uganda on an internship and spotted Opiyo playing while she was at a cafe. He ran off, but his face haunted her. Days later at the same cafe, she said, someone took her hand and said in the Acholi language, “White, how are you?�

“I looked over and I couldn’t believe it was him,� she said. “It blew my mind.�
Ms. Quinn raised money and brought Opiyo to the United States in November, with his parents’ consent, for operations that will allow his scarred skin to accommodate his growing body.

But Opiyo, a bright child who enjoys teaching Acholi to Ms. Quinn, has the emotional maturity of a toddler, she said. He turns violent when he feels threatened, which is often. Shriners Hospital in Boston, which had accepted him for surgery, declined to perform it until he was emotionally stable enough to stick with the crucial physical therapy program that follows.

“Opiyo is an extremely cute and adorable young boy who everyone wanted to help,� said John Levine, a psychiatrist at Shriners who agreed to be interviewed after Ms. Quinn gave permission. “We were frustrated that we were not able to find a more immediate solution to his difficulties.� Opiyo is only supposed to be a short-term guest in this country. His visa runs out May 20, and Ms. Quinn has custody of him only until June. She could not get state social services for him where she lives in Northampton, Mass., though she was able to get him into a public school for children with special needs.

So, in March, with various clocks ticking down, Ms. Quinn decided to take Opiyo to a refugee center in Kenya that works with children of war and said it could help him.

Then came the scene at Kennedy Airport. Opiyo broke away from Ms. Quinn and disappeared. He turned up 10 minutes later, his pockets full of money from a run of begging in a food court. When she took him by the hand and led him toward the checkpoint, he broke down, stripping off his clothing during the outburst.

At Brookdale, where doctors have diagnosed complex post-traumatic stress disorder, Opiyo has improved, Ms. Quinn said. Ugandans in New York have been visiting him at the hospital and translating for him.

Even Opiyo’s progress, though, is a double-edged sword. Brookdale, which would not comment on Opiyo, citing confidentiality laws, plans to discharge him on Monday, Ms. Quinn said. Opiyo’s school in Massachusetts will go on summer vacation soon, and Ms. Quinn, who lives alone, says she cannot afford to give him the round-the-clock care he seems to need.

Ms. Quinn, who is considering seeking permanent guardianship of Opiyo, said she does not know what she will do with him when he gets out. But though she sometimes questions her judgment, she said she did not regret her actions.

“It was probably pretty naïve and crazy to do what I did,� she said. “But all things considered, he’s doing so much better now — and he has a chance at a life.�

Cases like Opiyo’s are not entirely unique. Foreign children adopted by Americans can have behavioral problems that overwhelm their new families.

Children brought here for medical care by an agency can react badly to the new environment. But those children have greater access to support services than does Opiyo, whose psychological problems are unusually severe, Dr. Levine said.

“The confluence of those factors coming together just creates probably one of the most unusual sets of circumstances to contend with that I’ve seen,� Dr. Levine said.

Opiyo’s case raises a broader question, too, Dr. Levine said: How much is the American system obligated to do to help a visitor in need? “We don’t have enough resources here to take care of our special-needs kids,� Dr. Levine said. “But the thought of sending this kid, 8 years old, back to Uganda to beg in the streets, with these kinds of injuries, seems criminal.�

Last Thursday, Ms. Quinn went to visit Opiyo in the eighth floor ward at Brookdale, on Linden Boulevard in Brownsville. Opiyo bounded up to greet her, shouting her name. He gave her his list of things to bring the next time she came — a truck, a car, a toy cellphone. He jumped into her arms and hugged her for a long time. And he asked her, as he always did, if she was coming back.


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