Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Russell Hayes is one. You could call him a hero for being the oldest pilot called back into service during the Iraq War, but he went believing there was a greater reason. Upon his arrival, he found it.
Hayes and his wife had a daughter with dwarfism and after reading in the base newsletter about an Iraqi man working for the U.S. government whose own children suffered from a rare form of dwarfism, he knew he had to help. Upon telling his commander he wanted to find this family, he recognized his new commanding officer as someone from his own life, having crossed paths but not actually having met at dwarfism conventions he attended with his own daughter. The pieces fell in place.
Abdul Salman, his wife Wardah, and his children are Shia, one of two Muslim denominations, and who suffered greatly under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Abdul, too, is a hero, having chosen not to join terrorist factions fighting Americans during the Iraq war putting his own life and family at risk. Members of his extended family suffered including torture and death when retributions where taken out on them when they could not find Salman, who had taken his family into hiding with Hayes’ help.
Currently, Iraq is governed by a Shia led government but recent attacks by the terrorist group ISIS, who is Sunni, have brought old fears back to the surface. The Salmans fear for relatives still in Iraq according to Hayes.
Salman, again with Hayes’ help, brought his family to Kuna to escape retribution and to get access to much needed medical care for his three children who suffer from a rare form of dwarfism. In the last five years the Salman family has grown to seven children.
Unfortunately, their daughter Saja, the oldest who suffered from the syndrome, passed away in January, 2010. The smallest of the heroes are two other children who have the syndrome are Ali, age 14, and Baraq, age 12. Not only have they braved a new culture with a debilitating disease, and learned English from scratch, but they had the courage to go through a complicated surgery that their older sister died from not receiving early enough.
Both Ali and Baraq went through with their expensive, spine-stabilizing surgeries. While the surgeries may have saved their lives from the degenerative syndrome, they have many more to go to help them function with some sense of normalcy. The surgeries were paid in part through donations and support from The Dwarf Children Foundation, a non-profit set up by Hayes to assist the Salmans and others suffering from dwarfism all over the world. Four other children, Dhuha, Tabarak, Hussein and Abdullah do not have dwarfism. Hayes likes to add that 100 percent of donations goes to needy people. No administrative costs or executive salaries are taken out.
The Salman’s children attend Kuna schools and have learned English like native speakers. While they have adapted extremely well, Abdul cannot work due to a disability from shrapnel causing a severe brain injury that left him partially paralyzed on his right side. Because Hayes brought the family over using a special immigration visa, he is obligated to make sure the family does not rely on the social safety net. He and his wife have been paying the Salman’s rent and other expenses, relying on donations and help from the dwarfism community.
Hayes, with six children of his own, works as a rescue pilot, commuting to Texas, to help pay but the burden is big to support two families. A few years ago the Salman family was profiled in several episodes in “Little People, Big World,” a reality television show on The Learning Channel. Donations poured in, many in the form of clothes that couldn’t be used.
Things are tight these days said Hayes. His book “Miracle Rugs” about the Salmans sold some copies, but even those revenue streams are dwindling. Hayes is also currently working to assist the Salmans with the goal of American citizenship.
Humble and reserved, Russell is the type of man who believes in God’s ways. He knows that things will work themselves out. But he’s hoping that when people are reminded of this brave family, they might want to help out a little bit too.
(Visit www.dwarfchildren.org for more information or to donate.)