Mohamed Bzeek has buried about ten children and some even died in his arms.
That sounds like an opening to a horror movie. But in this case, Mohamed Bzeek’s story is full of humanity and wholesomeness.
In more than two decades as a foster father, he took the sickest of the sick in Los Angeles County’s foster care system.
Mohamed Bzeek, 62, is a devout Libyan-born Muslim who lives in Azusa, California. He spends his waking minute caring for his 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect.
She’s blind, deaf and has daily seizures. Her arms and legs are paralyzed. To avoid choking, the girl sleeps sitting up. What’s important for Bzeek is for her to know that she’s not alone in this life.
“I know she can’t hear, can’t see, but I always talk to her,” he said. “I’m always holding her, playing with her, touching her. She has feelings. She has a soul. She’s a human being.”
There are about 600 children at any given time who fall under the care of the department’s Medical Case Management Services, which serves those with the most severe medical needs.
There is a dire need for foster parents to care for such children and Bazeek is the only foster parent in the county known to take in terminally ill children.
His foster daughter was born with a head too small for her 34-pound body (15kg), which is too small for her age.
She was born with an encephalocele, a rare malformation in which part of her brain protruded through an opening in her skull, according to Dr. Suzanne Robers, the girl’s pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Neurosurgeons removed the protruding brain tissue shortly after her birth, but much of her brain remains undeveloped.
She has been in Bzeek’s care since she was a month old. Before her, he cared for three other children with the same condition.
Bzeek first came to America from Libya as a college student in 1978. He met his wife Dawn, a couple yeas later. She had become a foster parent in the early 1980s, before she met Bzeek. She was inspired by her grandparents who had been foster parents.
Before she met Bzeek, she opened her home as an emergency shelter for foster children who needed immediate placement or who were placed in protective custody.
In 1989, the Bzeeks opened their Azusa home to dozens of children. Often, the children were very ill. They taught classes on foster parenting — and how to handle a child’s illness and death — at community colleges.
Dawn Bzeek was such a highly regarded foster mother that her name appeared on statewide task forces for improving foster care alongside doctors and policymakers.
Mohamed Bzeek first experienced the death of a foster child in 1991. She was the child of a farm worker who was pregnant when she breathed in toxic pesticides sprayed by crop dusters. She was born with a spinal disorder, wore a full body cast and wasn’t yet a year old when she died on July 4, 1991, as the Bzeeks prepared dinner.
There was the girl with the same brain condition as Bzeek’s current foster daughter, who lived for eight days after they brought her home. She was so tiny that when she died a doll maker made an outfit for her funeral. Bzeek carried her coffin in his hands like a shoe box.
“The key is, you have to love them like your own,” Bzeek said recently.
“I know they are sick. I know they are going to die. I do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God.”
Bzeek also has a biological son, Adam, was born in 1997 — with brittle bone disease and dwarfism. He was a child so fragile that changing his diaper or his socks could break his bones.
Bzeek said he was never angry about his own son’s disabilities. He loved him all the same.
“That’s the way God created him,” Bzeek said.
Now 19, Adam weighs about 65 pounds and has big brown eyes and a shy grin. When at home, he gets around the house on a body skateboard that his father made for him out of a miniature ironing board, zooming across the wood floor, steering with his hands.
Adam studies computer science at Citrus College, driving his electric wheelchair to class. He’s the smallest student in class, Bzeek said, “but he’s a fighter.”