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The foster father who cares when terminally ill kids have no one

February 24, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Mohamed Bzeek has become somewhat of a local hero in Los Angeles, taking on a life mission that few others would consider: as a foster parent who cares solely for terminally ill children. Special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon meets Bzeek, a former Libyan immigrant who depends on his Muslim faith as he juggles intensive caretaking and heartbreak, as well as his own battle with cancer.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the story of a good man on a quiet and heartbreaking mission, one many people would never consider undertaking.

He worked for years in obscurity, until recent notice brought this remarkable man and his story to light.

From Los Angeles, special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon brings us this profile.

MOHAMED BZEEK, Foster Parent: What are you doing?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Mohamed Bzeek has become something of a local hero here in Los Angeles recently.

MOHAMED BZEEK: I am not an angel. I am not a hero. It’s just what we are supposed to do as a human being.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: In 1978, Bzeek, then a former marathon runner, came to the U.S. from Libya to study engineering. He met his wife here in the U.S., and became a citizen in 1997.

But, today, he is a different kind of champion. His distinction? He is the only foster parent in this city of four million who cares solely for terminally ill children.

What happens if you get sick?

MOHAMED BZEEK: Father doesn’t get sick day.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: It is not a glamorous job.

MOHAMED BZEEK: You have to do it from your heart, really. If you do it for money, you’re not going to stay for long.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Over almost three decades, he and his wife cared for scores of children. Ten have died in his care. Most of the children he’s taken recently are born with terminal illnesses.

Sometimes, they are abandoned or born to parents with drug addiction. Once they enter the foster care system, the county works to connect them with foster parents like Mohamed. The memories of the children, he says, still live with him every day.

MOHAMED BZEEK: And this is my kid who died with the cancer. He has a cancer. He died. They operate on him, and they find the cancer separate all of his organs. So, the doctor said, let’s stitch him back, and said, there’s nothing we can do for him.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Today, he lives with a 6-year-old foster daughter born with microcephaly, a rare disorder in which a baby’s brain doesn’t fully develop. She cannot see or hear. She responds only to touch.

At seven weeks old, the county took her from her biological parents. They called Bzeek, and he agreed to take her in. He also cares for his biological son, Adam, who himself was born in 1997 with brittle bones, dwarfism and other physical challenges.

Taking in critically ill children is a painful process. He knows at the start their time together will be short.

MOHAMED BZEEK: I know it’s heartbreak. I know it’s a lot of work. I know it’s going to hurt me sometimes. You know, I feel sad. But, in my opinion, we should help each other, you know?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Much of his dedication, he says, derives from his faith. Bzeek is a practicing Muslim. And his story gained special notice recently, after President Trump issued an executive order seeking to bar immigrants from seven majority Muslim nations, including his own home country of Libya.

Bzeek says he sees the negative stereotypes out there. But he is not deterred.

MOHAMED BZEEK: As a Muslim, I don’t hate nobody. I love everybody. I respect everybody.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: His faith has continued to guide him through many heartbreaks. His wife passed away in 2015.

After your wife died, did you ever think, this is actually too much for one person to do?

MOHAMED BZEEK: Sometimes. But I know somebody who needs help. I will do it as long as I am healthy.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Now he has a nurse’s aide that helps with care on weekdays from 8:00 to 4:00. But, still, it’s a full-time job, one he handles by himself every night and every weekend.

With his foster daughter’s seizures happening more and more often, he usually sleeps near her on the couch, just in case. He says he hasn’t had a day off since 2010.

And the challenges have continued to mount. In November, the caregiver became the patient.

MOHAMED BZEEK: I find out in November I have colon cancer. And they told me they have to operate on you in December.

I said — I talk with the surgeon. I said, Doctor, I can’t. You have to give me time, because I have a foster kid who is terminal. And I have my son. He is handicapped. There is nobody for them, you know?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Did anyone go with you to the hospital?

MOHAMED BZEEK: No. That was the scary part, you know?

I felt about the kids who’s been sick for all their for. If I am adult, 62 years old, and I feel this, that I am alone, I am scared, nobody tells me it’s OK and it will be fine, this experience, this humbled me.

WOMAN: She’s talking.

MOHAMED BZEEK: Yes, she’s talking.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: There’s so much heartbreak, and yet you keep doing it.

MOHAMED BZEEK: I mean, these kids need — need somebody.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Even if there’s that much heartbreak?

MOHAMED BZEEK: Even though my heart is breaking.

To me, death is part of life. And I’m glad that I help these kids go through this period of his time, you know? And I help him. I be with him. I comfort him. I love him or her. And until he pass away, I am with him and make him feel he has a family and he has somebody who cares about him and loves him.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: That they’re not alone.

MOHAMED BZEEK: No. They’re not alone.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Bzeek underwent a successful cancer surgery in December, and treatment is ongoing.

His story has received wide attention that led to an online fund-raising drive that has already raised over $200,000. He says he will use the money for a new roof, air conditioning, and maybe even a replacement for his 14-year-old van.

MOHAMED BZEEK: I was reading all the comments that people put on the Internet. Every day, I was crying because of their kindness and the nice words they said.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: And, in the end, he says he has been humbled by just how much his story has brought out others’ heart and humanity.

MOHAMED BZEEK: I can’t describe the feeling, you know? I mean, you see how many nice people around us, but we don’t see them because of this turmoil and this time. We didn’t see just how many nice and kind people around us.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Do you think you see more of them now?

MOHAMED BZEEK: Yes.

There is always good in this world, you know, more than the bad, always. That’s what I believe.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Los Angeles.

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