Qusay Hussein was playing volleyball with friends in the Iraqi city of Mosul Aug. 3, 2006, when a car pulled up. The driver looked him in the eyes and smiled. Then he detonated.
Everything in the 17-year-old’s life was turned upside down that day. Some people died and dozens more were injured. Shrapnel shot through Hussein’s skull and he lost most of his right cheek and all of his nose and vision.
He was placed in a room with patients who had already died and the doctor told his father that Hussein would soon die too.
“I’m not dead,” he told his father.
On Thursday, the 29-year-old graduated from Austin Community College in Texas with an associate’s degree. And he shared his remarkable story as the keynote speaker.
“I’m happy for what I have,” he told NPR from Texas. “The night comes and the day comes after.”
Hussein was treated by doctors in Iraq for two years following the attack. Then he went to Jordan for better medical care with Doctors Without Borders. He moved to the United States in 2012, leaving his family — including brothers who also survived the bombing — in Iraq.
“It’s been an international effort from the initial surgeons that really saved his life in Iraq to then some of the surgeons that did his initial and most extensive reconstruction in Jordan and then surgeons state-side,” Jeffrey Cone Jr., a craniofacial surgeon, told NPR.
Cone started treating Hussein a few years ago, when he came into the office for nasal reconstruction. Scar tissue was preventing him from breathing easily. Despite the physical setbacks, he charmed the staff with a friendly, confident air.
“When he’s on the schedule everyone in the office is excited about seeing him,” said Cone.
To date, Hussein has had 58 surgeries. He postponed more operations to focus on his studies, which began with English lessons. At first, all he could say was, “Hi, how are you?” so he started English as a Second Language classes. Then he got his GED and enrolled in community college.
He became a member of the Alpha Gamma Pi Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and joined the board for the Austin Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. He also became an Arabic interpreter for refugees and a mentor for new students at Austin Community College.
“The hardest part was to leave [my] family,” he said. When ISIS controlled Mosul, he struggled to stay in touch with them. “But in my mind, if I stayed there, I would not achieve nothing.”
The suicide bomber took away his eyesight and his dream of one day being a surgeon. But Hussein developed a new vision: to help people as a psychologist.
He was recently accepted to the University of Texas where he will start a bachelor’s program in psychology in the fall.