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Maimed by firework, a barber’s life comes undone

Rafat Shejaeya talks outside the Master Hair barbershop in Portage Park. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Rafat Shejaeya’s life has unraveled since, seven weeks ago, he held his left hand skyward and waited for the lit firecracker he was holding to shoot up into the air.

It wasn’t that kind of firework. It exploded.

The incident happened the afternoon of June 30 when he walked to an alley across the street from the Portage Park barber shop where he worked to have some fun with fireworks — as thousands across Chicago did as Independence Day neared.

Part of his hand sailed through the air into a nearby yard. His middle finger and his forefinger are gone.

Doctors sewed his mangled thumb to his abdomen in an attempt aid the healing process.

As his hand was stuck to his side, Shejaeya lost his job and his home.

No longer able to care for his two young sons, he sent the boys back home to live with his mother in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

And doctor bills are piling up as he tries to sign up for medical insurance — a process that, because of his immigration status, is confusing, complicated and, Shejaeya says, increasingly seems hopeless.

“I make mistake for myself and I lose a lot of stuff. So I don’t know, I don’t know, man. I feel bad now,” the 32-year-old said last week, not long after his hand was detached from his side. “It happened quick, like one, two, three. You know everybody make mistakes sometime. I thought it was something fun I could do and look like what happened to me now.”

He’s living in a friend’s basement.

“I don’t have a life. I have nothing. I don’t know what I am going to do now.”

The hand Shejaeya uses to cut hair — his right hand — is unharmed. But he needs two hands to be a barber, he says.

He isn’t hopeful about resuming his profession. And he’s not sure what else he could do to earn money. At the moment, he says, he’s focused on caring for his hand.

Is he embarrassed by what happened? “Little bit, yea,” Shejaeya answers.

Rafat Shejaeya, left, and Al Khrewish outside the Master Hair barbershop. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
Rafat Shejaeya, left, and Al Khrewish outside the Master Hair barbershop. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Shejaeya’s old boss, Al Khrewish, who owns Master Hair near Austin Avenue and Irving Park Road, chimed in: “I don’t think it’s something to be embarrassed about.”

Shejaeya was trying to become a licensed barber. He was building necessary hours as a trainee at the shop, where he swept floors, observed and did other tasks.

He occasionally practiced by cutting his sons’ hair.

“If those three fingers work after therapy, hopefully, and he actually could be able to cut hair, my shop is open to him. I’d have him there in a heartbeat,” said Khrewish, 26.

“People make mistakes in life,” he said. “We’re just trying to be here for him. We don’t want him to think he’s alone.”