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Sick Astoria boy gets second chance at life

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Omar Audi, a 9-year-old boy living in Astoria who would have faced death due to his medical condition if he had been deported to Lebanon with his parents, has received a reprieve of at least two years to the joy of school officials and legislators.

“I was so happy, so glad,” said Dania Audi, the boy’s mother. “Omar was clapping and jumping.”

Omar has hereditary angiodema, or HAE, a rare disease caused by the mutation of the C1 inhibitor, which controls swelling. Dr. Paula Busse of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, who has been treating Omar, said only 4,000 to 10,000 people in the United States have the disease. The symptoms of the disease are random swelling in any part of the body, from the throat, which can cause asphyxiation, to the stomach, which can cause pain, to the hands or feet, which can inhibit the sufferer’s ability to function.

“We don’t really know the trigger that causes swelling,” Busse said, although she said the swelling usually worsens as the patient approaches puberty.

When the Audis — Dania, her husband Rawi and her son Omar — came to the United States in 2007, they had not been planning to stay. Dania Audi said they had come to Astoria to spend the Fourth of July with her father’s family, but during the trip Omar had a swelling attack. She said Omar had been plagued by swelling since he was very young, but doctors in Lebanon could not diagnose his illness. Blood tests at Mt. Sinai revealed he had HAE.

“I was surprised because I had never heard of his disease before,” Dania Audi said.

Busse said the drug for this disease can cost $6,000 a treatment and is only available in America. If Omar were to leave, he would lose the insurance that pays for the treatments, which he needs multiple times a week.

The Audis have stayed with their relatives in Astoria since then and had applied for a temporary visa every six months as Omar received treatment, Dania Audi said. But in November, a judge denied them asylum, saying while Omar could stay, his family would have to return to Lebanon Dec. 24.

“I told him, ‘How can I leave my son here?’” Dania Audi said.

She contacted City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who worked through multiple avenues to get a reprieve for the Audis. Vallone wrote to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, worked with a local immigration advocate and also partnered with PS 234 in Astoria, where Omar is enrolled as a student. The school held a fund-raiser to secure an attorney for Omar’s case, although the attorney eventually decided to work pro bono, Vallone said.

Through speaking to the state’s director of immigration enforcement, Christopher Shanahan, Vallone was able to get the Audis a holiday reprieve and then a two-year reprieve after Shanahan reviewed their file. If Omar’s situation does not improve, they will be able to reapply, Vallone said.

Vallone said he was grateful to be able to help and ecstatic at the result.

“It reminds me of why I got into public service in the first place,” he said.

Dania Audi said while she misses her country, she is glad to be here to help her son. Her husband has been working in the United States as a deliveryman and she hopes to get papers to work and provide for Omar and her twin 18-month-old boys.

“I leave everything for him. I will stay here for him,” she said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 10:33 am, October 12, 2011
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