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Lions Clubs International

Zahraa's Journey for Sight

"The fact that Zahraa could come to the United States will change her life forever. Now she’ll have the same opportunities as other children to be successful in life, which is what we all wanted."

John Kempen,
Sergeant, United States Army

"We have worked hard to make this happen. Sergeant Kempen and his mother called us because they knew Lions fight blindness and that if anyone could help Zahraa, it was the Lions."

Frank Bocek,
Crandon Lions Club

"In our network of Lions clubs, word travels fast. When the international officers got word of what was happening in this community, we knew it was the work of strong leadership and cooperation from Lions near and far."

Al Brandel,
2008-09 President, Lions Clubs International

Giving an Iraqi Girl the Gift of Sight

While stationed in Iraq, Army Sergeant John Kempen noticed a girl named Zahraa, who couldn’t see when he tossed candy to her and the other children. Kempen took Zahraa to see his medic, and then spoke to Iraqi doctors who said they couldn’t help her. Zahraa’s father said she was born with a painful vision condition, and all that local doctors could do was give her eye drops that had little effect.

Location: Crandon, Wisconsin, USA
Crandon, Wisconsin, USA

The Lions Step In

Not knowing where else to turn, Kempen found help from Lions, who are known for their work to combat preventable blindness around the world. His mother in Wisconsin contacted her local Lions club, which worked with the Lions of Wisconsin, Lions Clubs International and Lions in Jordan to arrange for Zahraa to fly to the USA to be evaluated at the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin. When doctors discovered Zahraa would need two corneal transplants, Lions explained the situation to the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin and Aspirus Wausau Hospital, who agreed to donate the corneas and surgeries. Zahraa underwent two successful corneal transplants, one in each eye.

The Result

“When Zahraa arrived in the USA, she could barely make out the large ‘E’ on the eye chart. Today she can see the fourth line and her vision will continue to improve over time as the cornea tissue swelling goes down,” said Dr. Kevin Flaherty, who donated his services to operate on Zahraa. Following the surgeries, Zahraa’s vision began to clear at a rapid pace. After spending approximately two months in the USA, Zahraa was flown back to her homeland, where she could finally attend school with the other local children. “She will go to school. She will play with other kids. She will turn a corner. … This is a miracle,” said Zahraa’s grandmother Bushra.

Fun Facts

This project was very popular with news media in the USA and was featured nationally on “Good Morning America” and “ABC World News.” In appreciation of Sergeant Kempen’s compassion and action, Lions Clubs International President Al Brandel presented him with the International Order of the Lion.


Tips and Tools

Make It Happen: Give the Gift of Sight to Someone in Need

Where did you start? »
When Sergeant Kempen’s mother contacted us, we reached out to other Lions clubs in their area, the local hospital and Lions Clubs International to help facilitate this larger-than-life undertaking.
How did you fund this project? »
A Lions host family, Diane and Emil Wasniewski, provided food, clothing and shelter for Zahraa and her grandmother during their stay in the USA. The Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin and Aspirus Wausau Hospital donated the corneas and surgeries were provided by Dr. Kevin Flaherty, M.D. and the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin. In addition, Lions Clubs International helped cover travel expenses.
How did Zahraa and her grandmother adjust to their stay in Wisconsin? »
Zahraa and her grandmother faced challenges, including a language barrier, the cool Wisconsin climate and a completely different diet. The Lions host family helped Zahraa learn some English, and used gestures and translation books to understand one another. The host family also took Zahraa and Bushra shopping for warm clothing and groceries, and cooked meals to share together.
Any special words of advice? »
Reach out to others in the community to make your projects a success. Zahraa’s trip to the USA and successful cornea transplants were the result of the hard work and compassion of many people. Lions reached out to others for assistance, including the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin, Aspirus Wausau Hospital, Dr. Flaherty and the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin.

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