THE call that would change the lives of Mohammad Asif and his family came at 6am on Monday, December 16, 2013. “A relative in Afghanistan phoned to tell me there had been an explosion at my brother’s house in Peshawar, Pakistan,” he explains. “I kept calling the house again and again but there was no reply. Later in the day I managed to get through to their neighbour who told me it was very serious. I travelled to Pakistan the very next day.”
What Asif found there was a scene of utter devastation. A gas explosion had ripped through the apartment block where his younger brother lived with his wife and two sons, 13-month-old Abdul and Sudais, not yet two months old. All were in hospital with horrific burns. None was expected to survive.
“I remember the doctor telling me they would only live a few days, and that’s exactly what happened,” the 49-year-old Afghan, who arrived in Glasgow as a refugee in 2000 after fleeing the Taliban, recalls. “My sister-in-law died first, then my brother, then little Abdul, who was in a military hospital with Sudais. It’s hard to describe such a situation in words.”
Sudais defied the predictions, however, fighting on despite his burns. The blast had thrown him out of his cot and across the room, and the heat of the fire caused a plastic baby swing to melt across his face, burning away much of his nose, cheeks, lips and eyelids, and leaving one of his eyes exposed and displaced.
As the medical options in Pakistan ran out, Asif and his wife Nasima, 47, who had also travelled to Pakistan, made the decision to bring Sudais back to Scotland for life-saving treatment. In mid-February, following a successful campaign by the Scottish refugee and migrant charity Positive Action in Housing to raise funds and persuade the Scottish and UK Governments to support a visa and pay for NHS treatment, they arrived at Glasgow airport, Asif carrying the little boy, who weighed just three kilos, gently in his arms.
“We didn’t know if he would make it,” says the language consultant and community worker. “But we knew in Scotland he would have a chance – we had to try.”
It’s teatime and Sudais is playing hide and seek with the cousins he knows as big sisters at the family home in Carmyle, in the east end of Glasgow.
“Ready or not, here I come!” shouts the youngster, who turns four next weekend, as he takes his hands away from his eyes and runs from room to room looking for Maria, 18. He finds her and shrieks with laughter as she smothers him in cuddles and tickles.
Asif and his wife look on smiling and shaking their heads, trying to persuade the boy to sit down and eat his dinner, to no avail. Eventually, Sudais agrees and tucks into his pasta, coaxed along by Maria and Roslina, 20.
Like most boys his age, Sudais is full of chatter and has an infectious smile. In common with his sisters he speaks both English (with a Glaswegian accent) and Pashto, and flits easily between the two. He loves trains, cars and playing games on his tablet, and is keen to tell me all about his friends at the local nursery, and how he throws balls for the neighbour’s dog, Banjo.
Sudais will always be different, of course. His face and body bear the scars of 13 operations he’s already undergone to rebuild his nose, mouth and eye area, the seven months spent in Glasgow’s Yorkhill hospital under the care of plastic surgeons David McGill and Stuart Watson. Looking at photographs spanning the child’s life, you can see the real progress that has been made to heal and improve his face. But there are many more surgeries to come.
Not surprisingly, the last four years have been a mixture of joy and pain for the family.
“On the first day we arrived back in Scotland from Pakistan, Sudais actually died and had to be revived,” explains Asif. “The nurses were resuscitating him and as we watched we didn’t think he was going to make it. But after 15 minutes he came back – it was like he was reborn.
“He’s had so many skin grafts that when you look at his little body there is hardly anywhere that hasn’t been grafted from. At one point the doctors were struggling to find skin.
“He will have to have more operations, certainly on his lips – at the moment, they don’t have the strength to hold on to things. When he is six or seven there will probably be a big surgery, and hopefully by then technology will be even more advanced than it is today.”
The couple are “in awe” of the treatment and care provided in Glasgow.
“My wife and I spent day and night at Yorkhill for seven months and we have no way to even begin to repay the kindness and dedication of the doctors and nurses who treated Sudais,” says Asif. “The surgeons and the rest of the medical team are the most wonderful people – to us they are divine. Even the cleaners loved Sudais, they would all talk to him. When we go for appointments now we always take him round to the ward to see all his old friends.
“Scotland is so lucky to have the NHS and Sudais is so lucky to be treated here.”
Inevitably, there will be many challenges to come for Sudais and his family. The youngster still suffers nightmares most nights – a common reaction in young children who have suffered severe trauma – and NHS psychologists are working to help Sudais and his family cope. School is the next big life change on the horizon.
“Sudais is a very happy and intelligent little boy, he does everything a normal child would do,” says Asif. “But other children won’t understand what has happened to him and you can’t blame them. Sudais doesn’t understand he’s different yet, but soon he will.”
I mention that there will come a time when the child will have a deeper understanding of his circumstances; the loss of his parents and brother in Pakistan, the knowledge that he will always look different. How will the family cope with these painful conversations? Asif goes quiet and for the first time in the conversation I see he is overcome.
“It will be very difficult for Sudais and us,” he says eventually, his voice breaking. “But we are a very close family and we will find a way through it. He is in the best place here with us. He will have problems for sure, but we will all face them together.”
Indeed, Roslina and Maria have already thought about how to help their little brother as he grows up, both choosing to pursue a career in psychology.
“When Sudais came into our lives we thought about what we could do and decided studying psychology would be a good, practical way to help,” says Maria, who has just begun her course at Glasgow Caledonian University(GCU).
“Everyone faces problems in life, but when someone is outside of the norm they will face even more. This is especially true when it is your physical appearance that is different. Sudais has been through so much and is always so brave – our nickname for him is Tiger. But it worries us, especially when we think about when he goes to high school. That’s the time someone is most likely to get bullied.”
There have already been difficult moments.
“We went to a wedding recently and there were little girls staring and pointing at Sudais,” explains Roslina, who also studies at GCU. “They were young and didn’t understand, but as a big sister it breaks your heart.
“Our lives changed when Sudais came into our family and he brought us all even closer. We have more reasons to come home and spend time together. He becomes happy at the littlest things, and he’s such a caring wee boy. We are so grateful to have him in our lives.”
Their mother, who is also from Afghanistan, says she never had any doubts about taking on a fourth child – the couple also have a 22-year-old son, Mohammad Harun – agreeing with her daughters that Sudais has brought nothing but happiness to their home. She gave up a college place to study English to look after the youngster full time, but hopes to return once he goes to school.
The focus of the family now, according to her husband, is ensuring their application for adoption is granted.
“Sudais is our blood and from the minute we brought him to Scotland, Nasima and I considered him to be our son,” says Asif. “He now also has permanent UK residency. But I was advised by my lawyer that it is best for Sudais’s future [for us] to formally adopt him, especially in terms of his medical care.
“It is important for the family too. We are the only parents he has ever known – he calls us Mum and Dad. He’s been through so much already. One day we will tell him everything, but for now we just want him to be as happy and carefree as possible.”
The family is worried, however, that the process appears to have stalled.
“We have sent three or four letters to Glasgow City Council and had no reply,” Asif explains. “It is very frustrating. Soon Sudais will understand the difference between ‘nephew’ and ‘son’. We don’t want him to become upset by thinking he is different from our other children.
“We need the council to sort this out as quickly as possible and are more than happy to do everything they need us to do. But they need to communicate with us.”
Sitting between his sisters on the sofa playing games on his tablet, Sudais is blissfully unaware of all he has been through in the past and will face in the future. When the photographer asks to take his picture, he jumps up, smiles confidently into the lens and shouts: “Cheese!”
The family visited Afghanistan 18 months ago, although the security situation made it impossible to go to their home village outside the city of Jalalabad. Asif, who trained as a journalist and was active in politics before being forced to escape from the Taliban, is hopeful that they will visit again in more peaceful times.
In the meantime, he has high hopes for all his children, not least Sudais.
“Of course it will be up to Sudais when he is older, but I would love him to be able to give something back, and I think becoming a surgeon would be a good way to do this,” he says.
Asif returns to the public campaign that helped bring Sudais to this country in 2014, the many letters written in support of the family, the thousands of pounds raised.
“One day he will realise that there were thousands of strangers in Scotland who didn’t know him and didn’t judge him on his religion or background, they just took him in as one of their own,” adds Asif. “The Scottish people have given him everything, most of all their love and support.
“Without the Scottish people, we could never have done what we did.
“I volunteer in the community and I often take him with me. I like to teach him small things, how to interact with people and care for others.
“When he knew nobody, the Scottish people were there for him. I want Sudais to grow up and always remember that.”