By Mary Beaudoin WAMM Newsletter Dec./Jan. 2011-12
This is what a doctor from Najaf, said that Americans can learn from Iraqis: “Be patient. Survive. Never give up hope.” Mahadi Al-Faraaon, an oral surgeon and professor of dentistry, who counseled us with these words, was among eight physicians, accompanied by Intisar Ogal, a radiology technician, and Hiba Qader, a representative of the Iraq Ministry of Culture, who journeyed in late fall of 2011 from Najaf, Iraq, in a delegation to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.
Motherhood painting by Iraqi artist Shaima Saad of Iraq.
Dr. Al-Faraaon joined the delegation which was sponsored by the Muslim Peacemaker Team in Iraq and its supporting partner organization, the Iraq American Reconciliation Project, in order to gain exposure to what was going on in his field. He was specifically interested in ways to prevent communicable diseases transmitted by mouth. But, in addition to the medical component, the delegation was also engaged in people-to-people exchanges with Minnesotans. There was much we could learn from him and the others.
On a cold, windy day at the peace vigil steadfastly maintained weekly on the Lake Street/Marshall Avenue Bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul, Dr. Al-Faraaon and others in the Iraqi delegation met forty perennial vigilers who were holding antiwar signs. He spoke informally about how the young people of Iraq are particularly susceptible to diseases such as cholera and die within six months, if they contract them. It was humbling to try to explain that the long bridge had once been filled with protesters trying to prevent war on Iraq and that we regretted that we had been unable to do so. How strange, bittersweet and almost miraculous seeming it was that eight years after Shock and Awe, a much smaller, but faithful group was still here resisting war on Iraq, but this time graced by the presence of Iraqi people who live with the tragic consequences every day of their lives.
It is hard to imagine and impossible to underestimate the courage and fortitude that it must have taken for members of the delegation to enter the belly of the beast, the United States, after what had been done to their country. Understandably Dr. Al-Faraaon had not had good feelings about Americans prior to his visit, but he said that he saw in our eyes how we were genuinely sorry for what had been done to Iraq and that there was a difference between the people and the government.
Structure 3 by Ayad Alkad. Mixed media on Arabic newspaper on canvas.
During their 17-day visit, the delegation from Najaf spoke at forums and gatherings around the state and visited several medical facilities, including the Mayo Clinic, Winkley Orthotics and Prosthetics, Shriners Hospital for Children and a number of other hospitals. They said they wanted to observe and learn from healthcare professionals, medical organizations, and individuals in their Sister City of Minneapolis (Najaf and Minneapolis are part of the international network of Sister Cities), and throughout Minnesota.
Many of the physicians were actually professors of medicine who teach students, yet they are concerned that they have been unable to keep up in their specialties because of the condition of their country after years of war and sanctions. Iraq once had the most advanced healthcare system in the Middle East, but today the country does not even have adequate electricity and safe water supplies (7.6 million people lack access to safe water). In heat that reaches as high as 125 degrees at times, preserving medications and proper sterilization are just two issues.
“There is a shortage of medical equipment in all fields,” Dr. Azar Maluki, a dermatologist who was another member of the delegation, reported to a gathering at a home in south Minneapolis.
The medical situation, in general, is dire. In the first war on Iraq, 320 tons of carcinogenic depleted uranium were fired on Iraq. 2,000 tons were fired in the second Gulf War. There are many babies born with birth defects. Cancer is rampant throughout the land and even many doctors at teaching establishments have cancer, themselves. Adequate medical care is difficult or impossible to obtain for many wounded, disabled and ill people.
Coffin VI. From the series “Casualty Unreported by Ayad Alkad. Mixed media on Arabic newspaper on canvas
Dr. Ali Rashid, a radiologist, reported that there is an acute shortage of radiation therapy and several months wait for the little, now antiquated, equipment that exists. Children have leukemia. There is a high rate of breast cancer throughout Iraq. He said, “Iraqi doctors want to learn but we don’t have the opportunity.” While in Minnesota, he was able to visit radiology departments in several hospitals. He wanted Americans to know that Iraq needs help—but not in the form of military. There is a need to build hospitals and help educate healthcare professionals.
According to the Iraq Index of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy that has tracked numbers, there were 34,000 Iraqi physicians registered before the 2003 invasion. After the 2003 U.S. invasion, 2,000 physicians were murdered (No one seems to know by who.) and 20,000 left Iraq. Some physicians returned to Iraq and others have since graduated from medical school in Iraq so that by 2008, there were 16,000 physicians, less than half the number there were prior to the invasion, and yet the need had became so much greater.
Dr. Al-Faraaon said that there is lots of responsibility on the Iraqi side to rebuild, and that he hoped that there was the same feeling on the American side.
While the U.S. has spent nearly $800 billion since 2003 on war and occupation with its destruction of Iraq, very little has been done to rebuild it. But ordinary people in Minnesota, who, themselves, are now experiencing financial concerns, dug into their pockets to come up with funds to support continuing the partnership with Iraqi people.
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The Iraq American Reconciliation Project has been working to develop other funding sources, as well. Iraqis do not want hand-outs, but rather partnerships with individuals and civilian groups. The Najaf delegation said they want Iraq for Iraqis, but they do not want to be isolated. The Iraq American Reconciliation Project says, “U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq must be met with an increase in civilian engagement.”
The delegation visit was concluded with Hiba Qader from the Ministry of Culture presenting invitations to visit from the Governor of Najaf to some U.S. citizens who live in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Najaf was selected as “the keeper of Islamic culture” for 2012. In an interesting juxtaposition, during a presentation in the basement of a Catholic church built in the 20th century in a city incorporated in 1867, she described Najaf as a thousand-year old city steeped in history and Islamic culture. She said it was a place open to everyone of every religious background and that sharing the Islamic heritage will send a message of peace to everyone in the whole world.
To this end, we will recall the counsel of Mahadi Al-Faraaon the dental surgeon: “Be patient. Survive. Never give up hope.”
For more information on the Iraq American Reconciliation Project, as well as art, see reconcilationproject.org and aalkadhi.com.
Sources for article: Country Summary-Iraq. (January 2011) Human Rights Watch; 102-page report: At a Crossroads: Human Rights in Iraq Eight Years After the US-led Invasion (February 21, 2011) Human Rights Watch; New UNICEF Iraq Ambassador Kadhum Al-Sahir highlights needs of the most deprived. UNICEF-Iraq; Iraq American Reconciliation Project; du101.org; Tracking Reconstruction and Security in Post-Sadaam Iraq Index. Brookings Institute: Saban Center for Middle East Policy (October 28, 2011); costofwar.com; and interviews and talks by Iraq Fall 2011 delegation.
Mary Beaudoin is the editor of the Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) newsletter. She was an original board member of Iraq American Reconciliation Project and is a member of Twin Cities Peace Campaign-Focus Iraq.