Boy's heartfelt letter strikes chord with Obama

By Amy B Wang

Alex Myteberi, 6, meets President Obama.
Alex Myteberi, 6, meets President Obama.

In August, a widely shared video depicting a dazed and bloodied Syrian boy pulled from the rubble after an airstrike in Aleppo captured the abject horror of the country's civil war.

Halfway around the world, those terrible images of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh moved another child, about the same age, to write a heartfelt letter to President Barack Obama.

"Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria?" 6-year-old Alex Myteberi wrote. "Can you please go get him and bring him to our home?" Young Alex left the President clear instructions: Obama could park in his family's driveway or on the street in front of their home in Scarsdale, New York, and the Myteberis would be waiting with flags, flowers and balloons. Alex already had a friend at school who was from Syria himself; he promised he would introduce him to Omran. They would play and go to birthday parties together, and Omran could teach Alex a new language.

Since Omran likely wouldn't be coming with toys, Alex and his little sister, Catherine, offered to share theirs.

"We will give him a family, and he will be our brother," he wrote.

Obama was so touched by Alex's handwritten letter that he read it out loud at a United Nations summit on refugees in September.

A White House video about Alex's message went viral, with many praising the child's compassion and innocence in the face of such atrocity.

"Those are the words of a 6-year-old boy," Obama said at the summit, to applause. "He teaches us a lot. The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn't learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people, because of where they're from, or how they look, or how they pray. We can all learn from Alex." More than two months later, Alex and Obama met in person after the White House speechwriting team invited the Myteberi family for a visit.

Video of the November 10 meeting, which the White House released last week, showed Obama speaking to Alex about the impact of his words.

"I liked your letter so much that I ended up reading it to everybody, and so everybody heard what you said," Obama said in their Oval Office meeting. "You being so nice and kind hopefully makes other people think the same way. So I was very proud of you." According to Alex's family, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

"Can't even describe it in words," Alex's mother, Valbona Myteberi, said in an email to the Washington Post. "When the President shook my hand and thanked us for raising compassionate kids my eyes teared up and I was trying very hard not to cry. We were pleasantly overwhelmed by the feeling of pride, respect and gratitude that we received throughout the visit."

The White House invitation had come in September, but they had settled on November 10 because it fitted the family's schedule. The visit was to include a tour of the White House and meetings with some of the West Wing staff - but an audience with the President was never guaranteed. After all, it was two days after the election, and Obama had a packed agenda - including his first meeting with President-elect Donald Trump that morning and a South Lawn gathering with the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers that afternoon.

Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, 5, whose plight went viral.
Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, 5, whose plight went viral.

"Prior to the visit we were focused on adjusting his expectations that he would probably not see the President," Myteberi wrote in her email. "He had asked 'Will we meet the President? Will he be in the White House when we are there?' And we had explained that the President is a very busy man and even though he could not meet with us, this was to be a very special day, meeting with important people who work hard for our country in this very important place called the White House." Their priorities as parents, Myteberi added, were to ensure that their children were on their best behaviour in the White House - and that they not stain their clothes with cookies or snacks.

The adults shouldn't have worried, it turned out. "They not only made us proud, but also had a ton of fun, playing and being themselves in the halls and offices of the West Wing, building some of the best memories that we as parents will cherish forever," she said. They met with White House staff for more than an hour. Even Bo and Sunny, the Obamas' two Portuguese water dogs, made an appearance in the West Wing, to the children's delight.

"Everyone wanted to meet Alex," Myteberi said. "We met with a wonderful woman volunteer who had been the first to open and read Alex's letter. She was tearing and I was tearing - happy tears, of course." And then staff told the family that Obama would be able to see them after all. It was some time after the President's meeting with Trump.

"We never thought we would meet the President," Myteberi said. " ... You can imagine what a wonderful surprise this was for us as parents and certainly for Alex and Catherine. A great honour." Video of the meeting showed Alex appearing star-struck and at a loss for words as Obama shook his hand.

"It's so nice to meet you! How have you been?" the President told him. "You look very nice in your suit."

"Thank you," Alex said quietly, smiling. He told Obama it was a new suit. Myteberi said her son, though quiet, seemed to realise for the first time the effect of his letter.

Their meeting with Obama lasted maybe 10 minutes. Alex - who loves cars, helicopters and planes - asked the President several questions about his helicopter, his mother said.

They left with a letter that Obama wrote to Alex, expressing his confidence that if more people embraced his kind of compassion, the world would be a better place.

Obama signed the letter, dated November 8, and added a handwritten line at the bottom: "I'm very proud of you!" Myteberi said that her son continues to inquire about Omran, the injured Syrian boy whose image spurred him to write the letter in the first place.

"He's genuinely concerned about Omran, and asks about him on a regular basis," Myteberi said. "We as parents try to help him understand that Omran is safe with his family and friends. It's a very complicated matter to explain to a 6-year-old boy what's going on in Syria and why children are getting hurt." According to an earlier report by the Post, Omran's 10-year-old brother, Ali, died of his injuries after the airstrike. An estimated 20 per cent of the nearly half-million killed since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 were children. Of the country's 4.3 million refugees, at least half are children. Millions of Syrian children are not able to attend school. Millions have known nothing but war in their short lives.

The US says it has taken in more than 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, bringing the total to just over 30,000. That number, and the number of refugees accepted into other wealthy countries in the Arab and Western worlds, pales in comparison with the number accepted in the countries abutting Syria. The vast majority of those who have fled Syria are now living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Max Bearak contributed to this article.

- Washington Post

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