Wyeth, CIA join forces to fulfill boy’s dreams

A lesson in Downingtown on the art of Andrew Wyeth took a circuitous detour that eventually led to the CIA headquarters in Virginia and Mecca in Saudi Arabia – simultaneously spotlighting the courage, commitment, and compassion of a terminally ill 8-year-old boy.

Farouk Al-Azzam

Sporting his CIA credentials, Farouk Al-Azzam interacts with a K-9 partner during his day on the job at CIA headquarters.

Victoria Browning Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s granddaughter, put the odyssey in motion when she visited East Ward Elementary School in Downingtown this past spring to speak about her grandfather’s work. One of the students, Farouk Al-Azzam, caught her attention.

Wyeth said the spunky second-grader who was fighting stage 4 cancer - a battle he lost in October - impressed her with his resolve and resiliency. Even more striking was his passion for the CIA, telegraphed in part by the homemade CIA badge around his neck.

After learning about the CIA group the boy formed to help maintain order at his school and his aspiration to become an agent, Wyeth - lamenting her lack of CIA connections - sent the agency an email. In it, she expressed hope that officials there might be able to send him a note or do something to boost his spirits.

She said she was a tad disappointed when she got a response that the agency might send Farouk a CIA coloring book or something. But a couple of weeks later, she got a call from another CIA representative, who invited Farouk, his family, his principal and Wyeth to CIA headquarters.

Wyeth said Farouk had to be hospitalized at that time, but one of the CIA agents showed up at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and dialed CIA Director John Brennan’s number. Brennan then did a swearing-in for the wannabe agent by phone, fulfilling the boy’s career goal.

The ceremony also generated a letter from President Obama, congratulating Farouk “on becoming the youngest officer of the Central Intelligence Agency.” The President noted that Farouk’s “courage and determination in the face of great challenge reflect what is best about the American character and serve as an inspiration to us all.”

On Aug. 4, Farouk was able to travel to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va., and live a day as an agent.  Farouk toured the CIA museum, received a K-9 Unit demonstration, and ended his day by briefing Brennan, said Farouk’s father, Wasfi Al-Azzam.

Farouk Al-Azzam shows off the $18,000 check he presented to Chris Callanan, the director of event and corporate development for the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House.

Farouk Al-Azzam shows off the $18,000 check he presented to Chris Callanan, the director of event and corporate development for the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House.

By then, Brennan was apparently as taken with Farouk as Wyeth had been, and when he learned that Farouk had another dream of visiting Mecca, doors began to open, said Al-Azzam. He said Farouk had expressed interest in retracing the steps of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in the city where he was born.

With help from the CIA, the Saudi Arabian ambassador arranged for visas for Farouk and his family, which also includes his mother, Fatma, and three brothers ranging in age from 6 to 13. During the 10-day trip, Wasfi Al-Azzam said Farouk got to use his CIA credentials at checkpoints.

“He was living the life,” his father said, adding that Farouk was so excited he didn’t mind the 125-degree temperatures.

Al-Azzam, a biochemist who works for a pharmaceutical company, said his son had exhibited maturity beyond his years for a long time, committed at a young age to maintaining order, following rules, and making the world better. “He would get very upset if I went over the speed limit or went through a yellow light,” Al-Azzam said.

When Farouk received care at CHOP at the end of 2013, his father said the family stayed at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, and his son not only wanted to thank the organization, but he also wanted to make sure others had that same opportunity.

That goal generated “Flick for Farouk,” a movie night fund-raiser that mobilized the community. Its success enabled Farouk to present the Ronald McDonald House with a check for $18,000.

Al-Azzam said he and his wife greatly appreciated the support they received from the community as well as the CIA. He said the agency’s authenticity and generosity thrilled his son. Among Farouk’s CIA gifts: a signed jacket, a pen that doubles as a camera, and special sunglasses.

“Right now, we just keep looking at them and crying,” Al-Azzam said, adding that eventually they’ll find a fitting place to pay tribute to the treasures.

Finding a way to express gratitude to Wyeth is likely to be more challenging, he said.

“She is marvelous. I don’t even know how to thank her,” he said. “She helped Farouk condense all the things he wanted to do in 70 or 80 or 90 years into less than 12 months. It was so exciting for him.”

Wyeth, who lives in Philadelphia and works as a research assistant at Norristown State Hospital, said she just wants everyone to know how special Farouk was. On Monday, she donated a signed print of her grandfather’s to Farouk’s elementary school in his honor.

“Other people need to know his story and to be inspired by him,” she said.


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One Response to “Wyeth, CIA join forces to fulfill boy’s dreams”

  1. UCFSD Parent says:

    What a wonderful story about how one person can take action and make a difference! Victoria is a wonderful person as was her grandfather.

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