Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald
Humoody Smith plays in a fort made of blankets with his best friend, Caden Keithley, at Caden's home in March. They have been best friends since Humoody first came to the United States.
Click, click. Click, click. Click, click, click.
That's Humoody Jauda Smith using sound to see.
At 11, he's taking strides toward self-reliance with a different kind of sight. He was blinded at 2 when insurgents shot him in the face in Iraq.
His family sent him from Baghdad to Snohomish with hope that American doctors could restore his vision. After discovering that wasn't possible, his host parents, Randy and Julie Robinett Smith, fought to keep him here. Now, they're giving him the chance to learn to live independently. And he's surpassing expectations using new techniques and technologies.
The best thing people can do to help the blind is — not help, Humoody said.
“People think we need help all the time,” he said. “It's a nice thought. But if I'm going to become independent, I can't have people doing that.”
Humoody is already seeing success as he learns to do the same things as a sighted person. But he's doing it in his own way.
He's navigating the dark with echolocation. Humoody makes noises, such as clicking with his tongue, and interprets the sounds as they bounce off nearby objects. He uses that information to create a mental map of his surroundings.
“I'll purposely do my best in front of people just to show them I can get around by myself,” he said. “There's nothing I can't do that a sighted person can.”
Humoody has honed his echolocation skills well enough to guide his family on a hike. On a trip through southern California's Angeles National Forest last summer, he led the way up steep terrain and across streams. He figured out how to get back using landmarks.
He spends his summers working on echolocation with Daniel Kish of Los Angeles. Kish developed the technique after losing his sight at 1. It is similar to the acoustic wayfinding method used by bats, dolphins and toothed whales.
Kish leads his nonprofit, World Access For the Blind, by example. He rides a mountain bike using echolocation. Humoody isn't at that point yet, but he practices on a tandem bike with his dad.
Humoody said he connects with other blind people, such as Kish, because they understand what his life is like.
“Imagine walking around your whole life with a blindfold on that's permanent,” he said. “You've got to rely on your senses.”
‘He has so much joy'
Humoody's hearing is better than most. He once stopped Julie from losing a button that had fallen off her coat. He heard the air go through holes as it fell and picked it up.
He studies voice inflection to help him collect clues about people. He can pinpoint details, such as age, fairly accurately by listening to how a person speaks.
Humoody also has a sharp memory. He easily walks around familiar places, including his home, friends' houses and school, from recollection.
Navigating the Smiths' spacious, colonial-style home without breaking fancy things is no easy feat. Julie, an interior decorator, has the colorful rooms filled with perfectly placed antique furnishings and fragile frills.
In the bright front room, Humoody plays a 98-year-old Kranich & Bach grand piano. He enjoys jazz, college fight songs and spiritual music. Currently, his favorite is the James Bond theme song. He shows off his skill in piano competitions, recently placing first in five categories. Humoody said music unlocks something inside him.
“I play piano when I'm sad, bored, angry,” he said.
In contrast to the rest of the house, Humoody's playroom is strewn with toys. Still, he can pinpoint where any of his stockpiled treasures are buried.
“As you can see, I have a lot of weaponry,” he said, pulling out a Nerf blaster from a heap of toy guns. “Part of it was bought with my own money and the rest is from badgering my mom.”
He's an avid collector of spent military casings and shells, including one from a 105mm cannon. Humoody is considering a career in propulsion science.
“You'd think I would be afraid of it because I got shot,” he said.
Humoody has sought help and is still dealing with the attack. Despite his struggles, he is most always in a good mood.
“He has so much joy,” Julie said. “I forget he's blind.”
He's also handy. He once put together a dollhouse for Julie. The only part he needed help figuring out was the stairwell.
“He actually finds things for me, like my purse or my cellphone,” Julie said.
Humoody never gets tired of doing things people wouldn't think a blind person could do, such as sprinting down the hallway at school.
“I could bet, with all my life savings, there were kids in those classrooms with their jaws on the floor,” he said.
Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald
With guidance from orientation and mobility specialist Kathy Dalbeck, Humoody listens for the surge of traffic on a Snohomish corner in April as he learns to navigate and cross streets.
Tap, tap, swish, swish.
That's the sound Humoody's long, white, red-tipped cane should be making as he clicks along with echolocation. He's supposed to sweep it from 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock as he walks. But he's often moving too quickly to bother with the cane.
“Most of the time, I just feel like throwing it over the fence,” he said.
He doesn't want a guide dog. He figures then he'd only be as smart as the animal. He wants to rely on himself.
Learning independence is different for those without sight.
Orientation and mobility specialist Kathy Dalbeck is helping Humoody develop the skills he'll need to someday work, travel and live on his own.
“Every single thing we see, we have to teach to a blind person,” Dalbeck said. “It's very neat to work with someone who learns as quickly as Humoody does because he can do so much.”
Now, he's learning to navigate and cross streets in Snohomish. Before going out, he maps a route on a Velcro pad where strips of material represent streets. He considers things he might encounter, such as the cat he expects to come across on Cedar Avenue.
At an intersection, Humoody listens to traffic. He positions himself at the street corner and determines when it's safe to go.
“For me, one of the hardest things is watching him cross the street by himself,” Julie said. “I'm a worrywart.”
Beyond his traveling skills, Dalbeck said, Humoody is advanced in other areas. She appreciates his intelligent wit and grown-up sense of humor.
“It's even more difficult for someone who is blind to have social skills because they can't get the same cues as we get visually,” Dalbeck said. “He really is such a special student.”
Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald
Tanya Forster runs with Humoody during physical education class at Riverview Elementary School in April.
Humoody just finished the fifth grade in the highly capable program at Snohomish's Riverview Elementary. His ability to quickly memorize and recall information helps him succeed academically.
“He's never been behind in anything,” Julie said. “He's always been ahead.”
She enrolled Humoody in pre-Braille and caning classes shortly after he arrived at their home in May 2006. She worried that the education he got while receiving his medical care would be all he'd ever have. By the time he started school, he could read Braille and type.
He has been working with Tanya Forster, an education assistant and Braillist, since kindergarten. She helps Humoody work on independence. Forster reinforces his Braille and adapts lessons so he can participate in the same activities as sighted classmates.
“He can be real sassy,” Julie said. “She doesn't let him get away with it.”
Forster makes sure Humoody isn't missing things in the classroom. She'll even tell him if another student is picking their nose. The two have become close.
“We complete each other's sentences,” Humoody said.
He works on computerized Braille in the morning and again after school. He uses a Braille Note, a customized laptop for the visually impaired. Because Braille takes up a lot of space, words are contracted into letters. That means Humoody has to memorize spelling words in both forms.
While other students work with a pencil and paper, Humoody marks his answers with tacks on a corkboard.
At recess, the game is one-hand touch football. It's Humoody's favorite, despite not being able to see opponents coming.
“That's why I got plowed so hard,” he said of a recent takedown on the field.
He relies on his hearing to play. He explained that he's honing that skill in case he wants to play for the NFL someday.
“You may think a blind person can't catch a football,” Humoody said, grabbing a toss from his best friend, Caden Keithley.
He sprints around the Keithleys' during regular Thursday roughhouse sessions. He's memorized the way they have their rooms set up, too.
Humoody, a Pin City wrestler, taught Caden the sport. In turn, Caden shared what he knew about basketball.
“They're very rough with each other,” said Kim Keithley, Caden's mother. “They play like there's no difference between them.”
Humoody aims for the hoop with echolocation. He guards by standing under the basket and listening for the shot.
Caden, also 11, once tried playing blindfolded to find out how Humoody operates. He found the ball with his face.
“He's brave,” Caden said. “It's fun to hang out with someone who can do less stuff but more stuff than other people.”
Both boys are competitive. Bumps and bruises come with the territory.
“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” Humoody said, parroting a phrase he learned on the Marine Corps website. “I can take a ball to the face.”
He might want to serve as a Navy SEAL or in another branch of the military someday.
“I feel like I have something to do — protecting my country,” he said.
Humoody's determination has always impressed Kim Keithley.
“He had a lot of spit and fire in him,” she said. “He wasn't defeated, and that hasn't changed.”
Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald
Humoody gets ready for a tandem bike ride with his American father, Randy Smith, in April.
In May 2005, Humoody's world was forever scarred. His Shiite family was ambushed in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. The Sunni insurgents targeted Humoody's uncle, shooting him dead. They turned the shotgun on Humoody, a toddler, firing on his face at close range. His right eye was shot out. His left was blinded.
His mother and cousin also suffered gunshot wounds.
At a Baghdad hospital, the family was denied medical treatment because the terrorists threatened the staff. Humoody was later sent to Iran for treatment. He returned to Iraq blind, his face severely scarred and disfigured.
Another uncle, Adil Jauda, a University of Baghdad professor, sought help for the boy. He turned to a nonprofit group that brought Iraq's wounded children to the U.S. for medical treatment. Julie Smith volunteered to host Humoody while he visited American doctors.
“We weren't looking for another child,” Julie said. “The last thing I want people to think is that we took him from his family. It was their idea.”
A year after he was shot, Humoody arrived in Snohomish. The Smiths only expected him to stay for 6 months.
At first, they struggled. Humoody, then 3, was used to a different way of living. He'd never taken a bath in a tub. Julie had to get in the water with him because he was afraid.
“I didn't even make him sit down that first time,” she said. “We just splashed.”
She had a hard time getting him to wear shoes or sit in a stroller.
“Everything was a meltdown,” Julie said.
He also had a habit of hoarding food. Julie once found herself in a tug-of-war with him over a box of Cheerios. She gave in and he filled his cargo pockets with cereal. He then crawled up on Randy's lap, curled up and snacked.
When they learned Humoody wouldn't regain his sight, the plan changed.
“His uncle broke down on the phone, crying, because in that society, it is the end of life,” Randy Smith said.
Julie blurted out that Humoody could stay.
“We just fell in love with him,” she said. “It was meant to be.”
In Iraq, the blind face brutal discrimination. He would be barred from attending school, making independence difficult. The Smiths fought for Humoody and eventually won political asylum, allowing the boy to remain in the United States.
When he's 18, he plans to apply for citizenship and change his name. What he'll call himself, he said, remains “classified.” Also, by that time, the Smiths hope his face can be restored to look as it would have if he had not been shot.
Humoody has undergone about 20 surgeries. Last year, he had a particularly painful nose reconstruction and forehead expansion. He's expected to have several more operations.
“We're doing most of it just because of society,” Julie Smith said. “We just want the best for him.”
Humoody doesn't think he needs the work done.
“They say I'll look ‘normal,' ” he said. “I could care less what I look like. I'm blind.”
He sometimes gets offended when people ask about his face, particularly when the questions come from adults.
“It's the same question over and over,” he said. “They have no idea what it feels like to have that question asked every day.”
He recently decided to stop wearing a patch over his right eye. He used to cover it because there's no eyeball in the socket.
“People want to know why I have the patch on,” he said. “It's easier to have the evidence right out in front of them.”
His forehead, nose and the area around his mouth are scarred.
Some have made cruel comments, but Humoody remains driven to teach people a lesson.
“There's always someone who's going to be different than you,” he said. “Maybe that difference provides something you don't have.”
Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald
Tanya Forster helps Humoody with a graph assignment at Riverview Elementary School in April. Forster has worked with Humoody since he was in kindergarten, adapting his lessons and working with him on Braille.
Beyond the work on Humoody's face, the Smiths' goals for his future aren't unlike those of most parents.
“College, job, out of the house,” Randy said.
For Julie, the name of the school attached to Humoody's college degree matters more than it did for her daughters, Erika Lambert, 28, and Alexa Sheraton, 26.
“For him, it's especially important,” she said. “There is prejudice because he is blind.”
The Smiths have high hopes that Humoody will be able to go to university and beyond on his own, with the help of new technology. Randy, a project manager in information technology at Boeing, makes sure he has the latest devices. The Smiths are looking forward to Orcam, a small, wearable camera that understands what it is seeing and provides that information to the user. It can read restaurant menus, determine the contents of a package in the grocery store or differentiate a $1 bill from a $20.
But, Humoody said, relying on technology takes away from his independence.
Julie is proud that her son insists on self-reliance.
“He's got a mind of his own. He's like a little man,” Julie said. “It's important for him to be an ambassador for the blind.”
Sofia Jaramillo / The Herald
Humoody plays basketball at his friend Caden Keithley’s home in March. He aims for the hoop using echolocation, and he guards by standing under the basket and listening for the shot.
He used to talk to his family in Iraq, but the communication is diminishing with time. Sometimes, Humoody said, he feels guilty for leaving. But he can't imagine a life with his family in north Baghdad.
“I love America because it's a free country,” he said. “I wouldn't be killed here because of my disability — though I'm not disabled.”
When the recent violence broke out in Iraq, Julie reached out to Humoody's family. They were cut off from social media until late June but are OK. Julie said they are experiencing food shortages and the situation remains dangerous.
“I'm just grateful Humoody isn't there,” she said. “On a certain level, he cares because they are his family. But he's a typical 11-year-old and that's not his life. We have been praying for the family.”
Humoody said he would have to hide his faith if he ever visited his family in Iraq. He doesn't have much interest in returning.
“I would have no life in Iraq and would probably be killed because I'm a Christian,” he said.
The once-Muslim boy now stands firmly rooted in his Christian faith. He no longer holds on to anger about the brutal ambush, despite it leaving him near death.
“I truly think that's a God thing,” Julie said. “God is what gives him strength.”
She said Humoody was angry with the “bad guys” for a while. At 5, he learned about forgiveness at Sunday school and applied the lesson to his attackers.
“He was very serious about it,” Julie said. “He's given it up. He's not bitter at all.”
Humoody has since helped others learn to forgive. He delivered a speech at Tacoma's New Life Center, explaining his experience rising above the shooting.
With a precocious perspective, Humoody shares his life's journey and challenges people to put themselves in someone else's place. Being blind, he figures, allows him to look beyond what others see.
“People get stereotypes from what they think, instead of what's actually there. I show people that they're wrong,” he said. “I went to heaven and came back … God has a plan for my life.”
Photographer Sofia Jaramillo contributed to this report.
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; email@example.com.