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General News    H4'ed 3/21/10

One Town Helps Another in Iraq

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Twenty-five years of war has left 24 million Iraqi citizens with extreme poverty, 4 million refugees (half of them under 18), hundreds of thousands of dead, millions more wounded, a corrupt government that doesn't work--and tiny brown flakes of depleted uranium floating in the air.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the c ancer rate in Iraq has increased by ten and birth defects by five. The increase is believed to be caused by depleted uranium, which American and British troops continue to use today.

Enter Haider Al Saedy, an Iraqi immigrant from a small village near Basra in southeastern Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers converge and empty into the Persian Gulf. He left his country in 1991 because of Saddam's brutal policies and lived for five years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before he settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he eventually became a U.S. citizen.

In 2006, Haider returned to his hometown for the first time. What he saw was a complete breakdown of the city's infrastructure where there was little electricity or clean water. The streets were full of garbage, and raw sewage seeped into the water supply. The privatized water treatment facilities were staffed by unqualified and untrained employees.
Most diseases, like diarrhea, are preventable with clean water but women must walk long distances to get it--if they can. Dirt settles at the bottom of most water bottles.

He visited his nephew, Dr. Dhurgam, a medical doctor, who told him that the hospitals lacked supplies like gauze, blood bags and urine sacks. They re-used syringes and had no antibiotics. But what doctors needed most were cancer medicines.

In the province of Basra alone, the cancer rate rose by 242 percent while leukemia among children under 15 rose 100 percent during 1976 to 1999, according to a study at the College of Medicine at Basra University. Children living in the area were falling ill with cancer at the rate of 10.1 per 100,000. In districts where DU had been the most concentrated, the rate rose to 13.2 per 100,000.

Haider also visited the nearby marshes, whose annual floods had created a resource-rich ecosystem and a 6,000-year-old civilization in the area known as the Fertile Crescent--presumed home of the Garden of Eden. However, instead of finding a thriving agricultural paradise, he discovered that thousands of people had died and lost their homes and jobs after Saddam partially drained the marshes from 9,000 square kilometers down to 760 as payback against the Shiite Muslims who had opposed him

They escaped to the marshes for safety, but their refuge was short-lived. In 1991, Saddam rained down more bombs and 30,000 Shiites fled the marshes and went to Iran to join 650,000 other Iraqi refugees. Thousands of others died. Then Saddam took out his anger on the 250,000 Marsh Arabs who lived there and attacked them with bombs, napalm and indiscriminate slaughter. The 65,000 who couldn't flee were sent to camps away from their homes.

The people in the marshes lack many of their basic needs, said Haider, and 32 percent have little access to clean water, which breeds water-born diseases. They have no money, schools or power sources where they live so they must transport themselves by boat to other villages. Their whole way of life as a traditional water culture has been shattered.

Since the American invasion, 40 percent of the marshes were re-flooded but drought is shrinking them once again and the water remains very salty. The rest of the area is now a salt-encrusted desert.

"Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct," said a 2003 United National Environment Programme (UNEP) study. "Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have experienced a sharp decline." Global biodiversity has also been ruined stretching from Siberia to South Africa because the marshes served as a way station and breeding ground for migratory birds.

To make matters worse, Haider's brother, a hydro-engineer, said that Syria, Iran and Turkey have constructed dams on the rivers bordering Iraq. In this way they trade their water for Iraq's oil.

Along the desert roads are trashed landscapes with scattered "villages" of refugees living in tents. Many of people have escaped from the ravaged cities of the north. They cook their meals over charcoal fires.

Haider felt a profound emotional heartbreak over these sights and stories.

When he returned to the United States, he was determined to do something. He gathered a few peace activist friends--Kathy Murphy, Maia Storm and Helen Salan--to figure out what to do. Together they formed Iraqi Health Now.

In December 2006, they sent a cardboard box full of syringes and gauze to his nephew,
Dr. Dhurgam, by U.S. mail; it took two months to get there.

Then Haider and his friends began to think bigger and enlisted more help from local peace activists. In March 2008, they sent a 20-foot container to Basra with over 100 walkers, 50 sets of crutches, 15 wheelchairs, dried food, toys, soccer balls, toiletries and over-the-counter medicines.

Iraqi Health Now also became a project of Healing the Children Michigan/Ohio.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)
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