The delicate glass designs, echoing the silence and serenity of St. Paul’s Church, provided a momentary visual this weekend of everything Mohammed Al-Jumaili’s life in Iraq was not.
In a not-so-distant past, Al-Jumaili, of Fallujah, Iraq, was living in a state of fear. That was only perpetuated when, in 2006, Al-Jumaili lost the lower half of his right leg in a car bomb explosion. Now, he’s been able to stay in United States through political asylum.
As the Abington High School senior walked the center aisle in a ceremony to earn his Eagle Scout award from Troop 177, the life he left behind wasn’t out of mind.
Al-Jumaili, 17, is believed to be the first Iraqi immigrant to earn the prestigious honor by the Boy Scouts of America. And he’s accomplished that and many other feats – including earning a Bronze Palm – despite a number of odds. He joined the troop in February 2009.
After the attack that cost him his leg, national attention by CNN assisted Al-Jumaili in finding a benefactor who would help him and his mother travel to America and allow him to walk again, with a prosthetic leg. But even after high-profile media attention on Al-Jumaili fizzled away, the young man flourished, both in Springfield and Abington townships. Apart from his latest scout ranking, he’s led a high school robotics team and wrestles with one leg.
“Wrestling is all about how low you can be,” he said, noting that he doesn’t feel disadvantaged by his disability.
Even though he now lives in Abington with his mother, his affinity for St. Paul’s holds true. To earn the Eagle Scout ranking, he chose to do his service project with the church – landscaping, cleaning and installing a new fence for its garden. The project was completed in the spring.
Al-Jumaili first attended the church with the Affel family, who hosted him and his mother on their return to America for a second round of medical procedures at Shriners Hospital. Arranged through Hosts for Hospitals, the mother and son lived with the Wyndmoor family for about two years.
Like his ability to adapt into American culture, he has established a connection with the neighborhood Episcopal Church, located at 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., even though he is a Muslim.
“One of the basic philosophies of this church is we have open doors, open minds and open hearts,” said Emmanuel Mercer, an assistant rector at St. Paul’s. “And I think that is what Mohammed has experienced as being a part of this community – that he’s becoming welcomed and accepted and embraced, even though he says his Muslim prayers.”
“I don’t feel any different,” he said. “We’re all human and I love them, they love me.”
The religious tolerance at work is evident outside the church.
Bernard Homer, 83, recalled meeting Al-Jumaili at a cookout. The two were introduced through Christine Kindler, an Affel family friend and Chestnut Hill resident.
“Sitting at that table with two Christians, a Maya boy, three Jews and a Muslim all hugging and kissing in the United States. That’s a hell of a feeling,” said Homer, who has since become a mentor of sorts for Al-Jumaili.
The Maya boy just so happened to become one of Al-Jumaili’s best friends. Al-Jumaili met Franklin Morena, a refugee from Honduras, at a graduation party for one of the Affel’s son.
“Their friendship is bonded in, I think, their cultural differences,” said Kindler, also a St. Paul’s parishioner. “He and Mohammed then also had to endure the stress of the immigration process and kind of the uncertainty of ‘Are you staying, are you going?’ They couldn’t really call it home.”
Although Morena, 19, now attends Valley Forge Military Academy, he said he still keeps in touch with Al-Jumaili.
“I’m very proud of him. He’s a very hardworking,” Morena said. “We still play soccer together.”
The two can both find comfort in their current situations, too. They’ve both received green cards.
In fact, Saturday was about more than just Al-Jumaili’s scout award. His mother, Jinan Al-Jumaili, said he would be celebrating the green card he obtained in October, too, after the Eagle Scout festivities.
“In my country, [there is] no future for my son because he [lost] his leg,” his mother said. She remembered threats from people in her country after speaking highly of America with CNN: “We will kill you and kill your son.”
Disabilities and impairments are often paired with discrimination in the Middle East. Charles Affel said Al-Jumaili likely would have been marginalized, had he continued to live in Iraq.
Even though Al-Jumaili said he considers himself an American, the idea of living in the country still feels surreal.
“I’m still living the dream until this moment,” he said.