Marriam Biira doesn’t have any memories of walking.
For as long as she can remember, the 16-year-old Ugandan girl has had to crawl, dragging her legs across the ground. Marriam has been told, however, that she did walk as a toddler, before she was orphaned as a 3-year-old.
After Marriam’s parents died, relatives intentionally crippled her so she could beg for money on the streets in her village in western Uganda. About four years ago, Marriam arrived at the M25 Orphanage in Ntandi — an orphanage founded in 2008 by Ron Gladden of Vancouver and supported by the Epikos Church in Vancouver, a nondenominational Christian church where Gladden is a pastor.
Gladden and members of the church hope to see Marriam walk once again — and they’ve flown her thousands of miles to try to make that happen.
The church sponsored Marriam and paid to fly her to Portland for medical treatment. She arrived on June 2 — her 16th birthday — and is staying in Vancouver with church member Pat Hart.
“If one of our kids had this condition, we would do whatever we could,” Gladden said. “We don’t see her any differently.”
Marriam’s hip is out of its socket and her feet are deformed, bent sideways so she can’t use them to walk. To get around, Marriam crawls. Last year, the church acquired a hand-powered tricycle so she could more easily navigate the orphanage campus.
“We’re hoping to retire that or give it to someone else who needs it,” Gladden said.
The church tried to find Marriam medical care in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, to no avail. So they decided to bring Marriam, who speaks some English, to the Pacific Northwest.
Church volunteer Mike Davis took over the process of petitioning the Department of Homeland Security to allow Marriam to come to the country for medical care — an arduous process that took two years. In early May, Davis got word that Marriam had been approved for a four-month stay. She made the 26-hour trip to Portland with two church members who were already in Uganda for an unrelated trip.
Two days after her arrival, Marriam saw a physician in Portland for an evaluation. The physician — whose medical clinic is offering services free of charge but did not want to be identified — referred her to a specialist. Marriam is still awaiting that appointment.
Gladden hopes the specialist can determine the appropriate treatment and therapy for Marriam.
“We don’t know yet if she’ll be able to walk again,” Gladden said. “That certainly is the goal and the hope.”
Since Marriam’s arrival, members of the Epikos Church have been working to make her stay more comfortable. They rounded up a wheelchair for Marriam to use around the house and an electric scooter she can use outside. They brought over clothes and food for Marriam, and a few girls from the church gave her a manicure and pedicure.
“Her favorite thing is to ride the scooter while I walk the dogs,” Hart said.
Hart and Marriam also spend time sitting in the shade of a tree and coloring, singing along to music and playing with dolls. Church members are planning outings for Marriam, including a trip to the Oregon Zoo, a children’s play and swimming. Marriam also wants to visit a mountain to see snow and the beach to see the ocean, Hart said.
Marriam loves to learn and said she wants to go to school. She’s currently in the third grade. She didn’t attend school most of her life due to her physical condition, Gladden said.
Marriam wants to become a nurse so she can help other people, she said. The Epikos Church has started a program for the children of M25 Orphanage — which stands for Matthew 25, a book and chapter of the Bible — that will pay for their education once they finish secondary school and are too old for the orphanage, Gladden said.
The church, which meets at Shahala Middle School in east Vancouver, doesn’t have a building of its own, but it has poured $350,000 into the Ugandan village, building new orphanage dormitories and helping to feed kids at the neighboring school who can’t afford meals.
“Over the years, we’ve fallen in love with the teachers and the school,” Gladden said. “Our church loves this spot in Uganda.”