GATES MILLS — Gilmour Academy student Teeba Furat Marlowe has faced more challenges at the age of 17 than many people will in a lifetime. Her brother Yousef was killed by an improvised explosive device during a taxi ride in Baghdad with Teeba, who was then 2, and their father.
Teeba, an Iraqi native, was badly burned, and her photo was printed in The Plain Dealer, where Barbara Marlowe saw it and immediately felt a connection.
Mrs. Marlowe cut out Teeba’s photo and kept it in her pocket, and contacted the correspondent in Baghdad to ask about bringing Teeba to America for medical care. In 2007, exactly one year after the photo was published, Teeba arrived in the U.S.
That was just the beginning of a journey that Mrs. Marlowe, her husband, Tim, and Teeba shared with community members at Lakeland Community College on April 23. It has been a journey filled with challenges and achievements, which are also detailed in her book, “A Brave Face: Two cultures, two families and the Iraqi girl who bound them together.”
“Forgiveness is my native tongue and it is my relief,” Teeba said. “I have come to the conclusion that God chooses his strongest soldiers for the toughest battles. How can I be angry with God who sees me as a strong soldier?”
Mrs. Marlowe said that Teeba had 19 surgeries in her first 12 years in America to replace skin on her face, back and clavicle. She explained that when Teeba first arrived, the family met with Teeba’s doctors and with people who would make her wigs.
Teeba said that when she was still living in Iraq after the accident, she received low quality medical care and spent 40 days in a hospital bed while she was temporarily blind. When she found out that she was moving to America, she was unhappy with her Iraqi family for giving her to an unknown family halfway across the world.
“I thought my family wanted to get rid of me, but as I got older I realized that’s not it,” she said. “Giving up a child is the hardest thing you can do as a mother.”
When Teeba was 14, the family planned a trip for her to see her Iraqi mother, Dunia, whose eyesight was declining over time. The Marlowes and the Furats met in Dubai, United Arab Emirates for a life-changing visit.
The visit with her family allowed Teeba to connect to her Muslim roots, she said. She determined that God wanted her spiritual relationship with him to grow through Islam. After visiting her family, Teeba also said that she turned to the TV for news on the Middle East.
“TV became my No. 1 way to find out if my family was OK,” she said. “It was no longer the background music to my homework.”
Mr. Marlowe said that keeping Teeba in the U.S. was a challenge. He said that Teeba was only allowed to stay for six months, and the Marlowes had to keep renewing her visa. The medical care that Teeba needed would take much longer than six months, he said, and the family shared their story publicly to gain support for Teeba. The worry continued until Teeba received a green card and established legal guardianship in 2014.
“We thought the more people who knew the story and were sympathetic, the more people we would have in our corner,” he said. “People would recognize us and we had tremendous support from Americans.”
The family shared that one of the most beautiful aspects of their life with Teeba is how the American and Iraqi families interact with each other. Teeba said that if she mentions “mom” to her friends, her friends ask if she is referring to her birth mom or her adopted mom. Teeba said that she corrects them and says that both women are her mother. She also has dual citizenship in America and Iraq and considers both home.
“I’ve prospered and struggled in both. I belong to both and I claim both,” she said. “I would love to go back to Iraq but it’s not safe there and I can’t go back.”
Mrs. Marlowe said that she gets along well with Teeba’s mother in Iraq, and said that they have never discussed politics or religion.
“We see two families that came together for love,” she said.
Teeba’s story touched audience members. Manager of the Lakeland Women’s Center Gloria Lane said that Teeba’s story is inspirational.
“It was an amazing story, and she tells it in such an incredible way,” she said.
Ms. Lane’s husband, Jim, was impressed by the Marlowes’ commitment to adopt Teeba and care for her.
“At certain times in our lives, we are given the chance to stand up,” he said. “People have the capacity to accept that and step up and that’s what gives me hope in these times of trouble.”
Mary Goss-Hill, the women’s center program manager, said that it was amazing to hear what Teeba had overcome and her courage is sure to make listeners reconsider their own habits that may be selfish and greedy.
In the future, Teeba said that she would like to help her family leave Iraq. She also wants to leave Ohio for college and study to be a doctor, perhaps an obstetrician or a pediatric anesthesiologist.