In the dead of night, we walked on unpaved roads through mud and sewage the color of fluorescent green antifreeze. The soldiers kept an eye out for rooftop snipers.
In the house, we found Soad and Haider ready to go -- against the advice of neighbors who warned they would be threatened, against the wishes even of some family members who worried for their safety. Others voiced concern the family would lack the means to provide the lifetime of care Noor would need after complicated surgery.
But for Soad, the path was clear. It was a matter of life and death for Noor. Their tumultuous journey had begun.
Iraq's miracle baby
The military worked furiously to figure out the logistics of ferrying Iraqi civilians out of the country on U.S. transport. But it took awhile. I spent my days with Soad, Haider and Noor at Camp Liberty. They stood out on the base full of infantrymen.
We all took turns helping Soad care for Noor. One sergeant helped feed her. Other soldiers took their Bradley Fighting Vehicles on a mission to buy diapers and baby formula.
But even amid the generosity, suspicion lingered.
A soldier guarding Noor's door leapt from his chair one day when Haider stepped out to use his cell phone. Makeshift bombs, the top killer of U.S. troops in Iraq, were often detonated with mobile phones.
Soon news came that an Atlanta-based Christian nonprofit group called Childspring International would help. The charity brings sick children from the developing world to the United States for medical care.
On New Year's Eve, I watched the family board a C-130 at the Baghdad airport. No one there that day could have ever imagined an infant aboard a military plane. I stood there squinting upward at a cloudless Baghdad sky until the plane disappeared from view.
At the other end of the journey, hordes of media awaited the arrival of Baby Noor at the Atlanta airport. She was whisked away to the home of a host family, and within days doctors at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta examined Noor.
The state-of-the-art hospital is reputed for treating cancer, blood disorders and orthopedic problems. Soad and Haider were in awe. Their idea of medical care was limited to an Abu Ghraib clinic with dirty terrazzo floors, shattered windows and a few shelves holding medications obtained on the black market or from the U.S. military.
In January 2006, doctors began performing the first of several operations. Noor underwent surgery to realign and enclose her spinal column and then orthopedic surgery to release congenitally shortened tendons and overly tight ligaments in the back of her left ankle.
Dr. Roger Hudgins, a pediatric neurosurgeon, inserted a shunt or tube to drain the fluid that collected beneath the outer membrane covering the brain.
Hudgins was pleased with how well Noor responded, although he knew she would need a lifetime of medical monitoring. He also knew she would experience bladder problems common with spina bifida babies.
Soad told Hudgins that Noor was strong from her very first days. She asked if her granddaughter would walk, if she would lead a normal life.
Hudgins paused. Already, he had told the family that Noor would always need a wheelchair. That no matter what he did, she would never gain use of her legs. But how could he dash their yearning for a miracle?
He told them: "I'm not here to take away hope. Time will tell."
Soad and Haider moved into the suburban home of Nancy and Edward Turner as Noor recuperated from her surgeries.
Mother and son marveled at life in America.
Haider developed a taste for Cheetos and Kentucky Fried Chicken; he and Soad stood in awe of supermarket spigots that sprayed a fine mist over produce to keep them fresh. In Abu Ghraib, flies swarmed the market, landing on everything from tubs of pickled vegetables to freshly slaughtered sheep.
Haider and Soad admired things Americans take for granted: a central vacuum system, clean roads and a lush landscape of tall pines and oaks.
Emboldened in America, Soad uncovered her head and asked Nancy to help dye her hair a Revlon red. Haider took to making syrupy sweet Iraqi-style tea for the Turners.
But life began unraveling when the phone calls started.