Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Iraqi Health Now Scores Another Win

Haider Al Al Saedy, founder of Iraqi Health Now

Iraqi Health Now

About 100 people attended a fundraiser for Iraqi Health Now on Monday night at Zooroona's Middle Eastern Restaurant to collect $2,700.

This is the latest effort by Iraqi Health Now to raise money to buy food from Iraqi farmers in order to provide village families in southern Basra area near Gazaiza.  Haider will go there this winter.
Kathy Murphy, emcee for the event, congratulates Margaret.

Margaret Morris Al-Oboudi, a long-time peace activist in Kalamazoo, was honored for her work with the Iraqi people for some 20 years after she moved to Baghdad with her husband and two children in 1953. She was also honored also for all that she has taught the people of Kalamazoo about the culture and beauty of Iraq. While in Baghdad she taught make-up at the Fine Arts Institute and worked with her husband, Jassim Al-Oboudi, on his TV and theatre productions there.  Jassim later became dean of the College of Fine Arts at Baghdad University.  Margaret also participated in groups that helped preserve and showcase Iraq's archeological heritage.  The couple raised eight children, six of them born in Iraq.


Rahim AlHaj, an Iraqi oud player and composer who is a featured artist with this year’s Michigan Festival of Sacred Music taking place November 10-21.  Rahim performs music that combines the Iraqi maqams of traditional Arab music with contemporary styling and influences.
The Story of Iraqi Health Now
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 cancer 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 have used in this eight-year war.

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 Hussein’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.  Dirt settles at the bottom of most water bottles.

Haider visited his nephew, Dr. Dhurgam, a medical doctor, who told him that the hospitals lack supplies like gauze, blood bags and urine sacks.  They re-use 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 depleted uranium 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 in a 6,000-year-old civilization area known as the Fertile Crescent—presumed to be the Garden of Eden as referenced in the Bible.  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.

The people 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 has been 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 them have escaped from the ravaged cities of the north.  They cook their meals over charcoal fires. 

Haider with Bella, Maia and Kathy
Haider felt 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—and 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 the help of activists with the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW).  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.

Haider in Iraq with the Hydraid bio-sand water filter
  In May 2009, they sent a 40-foot container full of medical equipment and supplies, clothes, food, and 120 Hydraid bio-sand water purifiers from Clean Water for the World, a Kalamazoo-based organization that sends simple, adaptable 35-pound water purification systems “to communities without access to clean drinking water.”

Surgical kits were donated by Borgess Medical Center and a local physician arranged for a supply of medicines. 

What the Iraqi people want most is for the American people to care about them and understand their suffering, said Haider.  So Bill Murphy, Kathy’s brother, volunteered to go with Haider to deliver the container and to document the people’s plight on film.  The finished product is now available in three parts on YouTube (see below).  

The highly emotional film shows the Iraqis’ expressions of gratitude as supplies are distributed and the water systems set up.  One mother of a severely deformed boy cries over her son’s good fortune of getting a wheel chair.  An old man excitedly tries out his new crutches.  The film also features the many local people from Haider’s American home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who have contributed to this amazing project.

In July 2010 Iraqi Health Now sent another container with many donated and purchased supplies including shoes and socks for children and Igloo water containers to keep drinking water cool.  Last January they sent electrical generators for the families to share to keep food cool and to run fans.

Iraqi Health Now has sent 3,500 pounds of medicines and medical supplies to Iraq.  And, all of the donations go directly to the Iraqi people living in villages and the marshes near Basra.  There are no overhead costs or paid employees since the organization is a totally voluntary operation. 

However, corruption in the port cities is making it more and more difficult to bring containers of supplies to Iraq.  Haider is now contacting local farmers and buying food from them to distribute to people in the Basra area.  Last February 60 families were given a month’s supply of food.  Women helped him distribute the food door-to-door. 

Haider said the families were very grateful for the food.  He knows what it’s like to go hungry.  During his time in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia he hadn’t had anything to eat for a long time.  When he was given a fried tomato with bread he said it was one of the best things he ever had. 

The strength of Iraqi Health Now is the personal contact Haider makes through his family and friends in Iraq.  In this way supplies go directly to the people who need them.  This is especially critical now since many NGOs and charitable organizations left Iraq a couple years ago due to the lack of safety in the country. 

Iraqi Health Now has allowed Haider to make many new friends both in Kalamazoo and in Basra.  It has also been able to bring together two communities half a world apart through aid, hope and smiles.

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