Riyadh describes, "The years of sanctions have deeply affected Iraqi society and people have learned to survive individually and have lost the sense of community and caring for others."
"As a result of the 1991 Gulf War the province of Al Muthanna is littered with thousands of unexploded landmines and missiles." "There are many heartbreaking of disabled children in Iraq."
Most children amputees in non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries are victim of wars, those evil scourges flourished by bullets, explosives, bombs, land mines and missiles. During this last decade the Al Muthanna and Basra provinces of Iraq challenged Angola for the highest proportion to total population of children amputees. Basra has been devastated by the war with most families having lost a family member, with many orphaned children and with most families caring for a family member who has been physically impaired. Let us not forget that Iraq’s Al Muthanna and Basra was laid victim to depleted uranium during the war and hence they have levels of cancers unheralded since Chernobyl. Al Muthanna province has been invaded by thereabouts thirty radioactive sites.
Firstly through the Centre for Human Rights at Curtin University and hence through a tertiary student volunteer organisation which I founded in 2005, Students Without Borders, I met Curtin University student and Iraqi Riyadh Al-Hakimi. Riyadh described to me much of the devastation of Basra and its effect on its humanity. I do not forget Riyadh’s description to me of a little Iraqi child dragging himself across the street in their hometown, and his withered deadened-like stump of his right leg creating a painful trail in the dusty street. The child’s parents could not afford a wheelchair nor were wheelchairs readily available. Much of Iraq’s infrastructure had been devastated by the drawn out war. Life had been further complicated by the vehement acrimony between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Riyadh often described to me an Iraq, before the invasion, where it did not matter whether someone was Sunni or Shi’ite, and marriage and business between Sunnis and Shi’ites occurred on a daily basis. I will never forget what Riyadh once said to me, "Till this war was started on us in Iraq, no-one ever asked me whether I am Sunni or Shi’ite. Never."
Riyadh and I teamed up through Students Without Borders to send as many wheelchairs as we could to the Iraqi towns of Najaf, Samawa and Ramadi. During 2008 we had planned on securing 200 wheelchairs however Riyadh secured 327 new children wheelchairs generously donated by Gnangara manufacturer Wheelchairs for Kids. However there began a long saga. No shipping company would transport the wheelchairs to the Basra port. It was deemed too dangerous. I had coordinated the shipping of many sea containers, usually full of recycled computers, to various parts of the world however it was the first time we were rejected by every shipping company. Woodside donated funds to cover their transport and Senator Chris Evans assisted by approaching the Australian Defence Forces. The staff of Wheelchairs for Kids gave of their time on a Saturday and packed them for transport. We organised transport to Sydney’s ADF Moorebank airbase, and from there they were flown to Kuwait. The ADF transported them by land, accompanied by Riyadh, and they disbursed them to the three towns of Ramadi, Najaf and Samawa. Najaf is Riyadh’s hometown and it has a high proportion of amputees. Najaf and Samawa are predominately Shi’ite and Ramadi is majorly Sunni. Riyadh wanted this gesture to bring the two peoples together as had been his world prior to the war. The local Sunni hospital in Ramadi distributed over 100 wheelchairs and community did view Riyadh’s gesture as one of goodwill and every reason for reconciliation. In the end all people have 'good’ in them and it is in the 'good’ we must tap into to unfold a human rights language and hence a civil and just society.
Iraq’s infrastructure has been crippled and much of what has been blown away has not been replaced. People flee not only from persecution but also because they have no access to health or education nor any prospect for employment. If people better understood the UN Conventions in reference to Asylum Seekers they would realise that people have a right to life, liberty, security and the right to the protection and advancement of their families and their prospects. At this time Riyadh has returned to Iraq to help his people, and describes an Iraq to me that is not as perilous as was a couple of years ago, that it is improving, however he describes an Iraq economically bare, and in desperate need of investment in basic services.
Riyadh and I have teamed up again through The Human Rights Alliance, a fledgling organisation following in the steps of Students Without Borders. We are working towards developing a wheelchair factory in the heart of Al Muthanna, in Samawa. Riyadh resides in Samawa and will be on hand to ensure the planning of the factory. Riyadh is now a political advisor to an Iraqi federal member of parliament from Al Munthanna. At this time we seek only for the wheelchairs to be assembled at the factory, so more can be shipped with each sea container or their parts bought cheaper than what is required for a pre-assembled whole unit. A sea container can carry three hundred and thirty whole unit wheelchairs however the same container can carry the disassembled parts for more than 1,000 wheelchairs. Riyadh has secured a block of land in Samawa for the factory, and the people are waiting to be trained and employed. We have contacted Motivation UK, a charity who specialises in the provision of such pathways, to help us with the evaluation phase and to map out training and services. The demand for wheelchairs is larger than we can provide for by whole unit donations. If we can secure some financial donors to help us underwrite a wheelchair factory where they can be assembled, and in the future manufactured from local resources, we will begin the journey for the demand for wheelchairs to be met. Subsequently, such a locally managed service will spawn other services required for maintenance and care. Obviously, we will generate much needed employment for some local Iraqis. From little things big things grow. Once we have children and adult amputees in wheelchairs produced from local resources, then prosthetics will arrive, localised prosthetic manufacturing and education institutes will be developed, and comprehensive basic health and medical services will be returned to the region to underwrite them. None of this is there at this time.
Riyadh describes, "The idea of establishing a factory will contribute to strengthening community. The years of sanctions have deeply affected Iraqi society and people have learned to survive individually and have lost the sense of community and caring for each other. I have started working with university students and teach them to care for one another and not expect anything in return. It is important Iraqis run the project because it empowers them to do more for community and it makes them less reliant on foreign aid."
Iraq has a disproportionately high number of disability and amputees. For instance the radioactivity in Al Muthanna province, in Basra province, from the depleted uranium during the war, has led to a disproportionate number of babies born with deformities, and many who will never be able to walk. The landmines that still litter provinces kill and incapacitate adults and children, and children are especially vulnerable as many have been born after the first Gulf War. Al Muthanna, Iraq’s second largest province with a population in excess of 750,000, shares a border with Saudi Arabia, and as a result during the 1991 Gulf War became a battlefield and hence the unexploded landmines and missiles which are pocketed in the land they walk on. There are foreign military forces who will not traverse over certain areas they know too dangerous as a result unexploded landmines and or which are dangerously radioactive. During 2005 Dutch forces declared some Al Muthanna regions far too dangerous because of the radioactive levels and withdrew and on leaving warned the locals. Villages and schools surround this radioactive sites.
Riyadh describes, "There are many heartbreaking stories of disabled children in Iraq. They place further burdens on families who struggle to feed their children. In Iraq disabled children are excluded from social activities as there is no infrastructure, and many disabled children will not let their parents carry them on their shoulders, being too embarrassed. Many have stopped going to school. In the street I live in there are six disabled children however only one of them was able to receive a wheelchair from the load we sent. Wheelchairs must be provided to every child that needs one in Iraq irrespective of their religion and ethnicity."
During 2008, the World Health Organisation released 'Guidelines on the provision of Manual Wheelchairs in less resourced settings' which now provide a standard of wheelchair provision in parts of the world lacking infrastructure and services that many of us in Australia take for granted. With the help of Motivation UK which specialises in wheelchair provision a flat-pack form of affordable, adjustable and durable chairs will be assembled by the locally trained staff at the factory and fitted, and adjusted and where necessary modified, to each user.
Iraq is not alone with a high proportion of amputees, and children are 20% of the amputees, however what we have now is the opportunity to give Iraqis in the Al Muthanna province, a region devastated by our Western World, reasons to believe in that their homeland can provide for them, that it can be everything that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights describes in terms of the civil, human and economic rights necessary for dignity and adequate human worth. No one should be at the discretion of philanthropy. People should be helped along towards self-management and self-determination. As Gandhi argued, Indian advancement must arise from Indian people, others can only assist, but we cannot and must not be paternalistic, not in any form. I have always believed in Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples and so it must be for the reconstruction of the Iraqi nationhood and the esteem of its people. If West Australians wish to help they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0430 657 309. If the factory is delayed we will continue to fill sea containers of wheelchairs however even though we are helping many people we will never by this means help everyone. A sea container has been organised for shipment this November, 2011, 350 children's wheelchairs, donated by Wheelchairs For Kids, and the funds for the shipment raised by the volunteers of The Human Rights Alliance and from within Australian-Iraqi community. Riyadh has been working closely with the Iraqi peoples to now agree on moving forward towards not only a wheelchair assembly factory in Al Munthanna however also in Kurdistan.
Some of Al Muthanna’s and Basra’s regions have been so devastated that they no longer share in bitumen roads and pathways and instead are disingenuously gregarious pot holed roads, and dirt paths. These paths are not easily manageable by the fold up wheelchairs we send however at least the children afflicted by amputations are able to extend themselves from a confine within the home and their absolute dependency on others. The witness of a child amputee dragging his body across a road at least need not occur.
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330 childrens wheelchairs will leave for Iraq in November.
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Convener of The Human Rights Alliance
PhD (Law) researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody