The Italian ‘injecting hope’ in Afghanistan

Physiotherapist Alberto Cairo has spent more than two decades working with the Red Cross in Afghanistan. He talks to The Local about regime change, rehabilitation and the man who changed his life.

The Italian 'injecting hope' in Afghanistan
Alberto Cairo (centre) with a patient in Afghanistan.

Alberto Cairo heads up the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) orthopaedic programmes in Afghanistan, overseeing the organization’s work with people suffering from physical disabilities. Based in the country’s capital Kabul, he oversees a nationwide team of 750 that sees hundreds of patients every day.

December 3rd marked International Day of Persons with Disabilities, giving The Local the chance to find out how Italians are making a difference. Speaking from Kabul, Cairo explains how he came to be in Afghanistan and what life is like working within the fragile state.

How did you come to be in Afghanistan?

One of my dreams was to be a physiotherapist and I liked travelling, so I thought why not put the two together with a humanitarian mission.

After three years working in Juba [now capital of South Sudan] with an Italian organization, I returned to Italy and wrote to the Red Cross. I was lucky and got an interview; at the last moment they told me the job was in Afghanistan and without much thinking, I said yes.

I knew it could be dangerous but I was convinced that I could learn and do something good.

What were your first impressions of Kabul?

At the time Kabul was under a regime that was at its end, because the major towns were surrounded by Mujahideen [Islamic fighters]. A major change was in the air.

I was assigned to a hospital for war victims; I was quite shocked to see how many patients were coming in every day, mainly landmine victims.

I had the impression that Kabul was the place where I wanted to be. It was a very strange feeling in such a sad place, but I felt I was useful.

What happened when the government was overthrown?

In 1992, when the Mujahideen took control of the country, the orthopedic centre was closed and I left to spend a month in Italy.

I returned to Afghanistan with the ICRC to work with homeless people. It was extremely sad, the conditions were absolutely appalling and people were fighting over pieces of firewood. People were deprived of their dignity, it was really terrible.

What made you decide to reopen the orthopedic centre?

In January 1994 I was driving home when a rocket fell. Everyone ran apart from a man in a wheelchair and his son, who was no older than eight.

The man had no legs and just one arm; when I asked him why he didn’t have artificial legs he said it was because the ICRC had closed. Without thinking I said, “Come tomorrow and we will help you”.

I went very early the next morning and, to my surprise, the man, Mahmood, was already there with his son Rafi and around 20 other disabled people. I was astonished.

The gatekeeper told me that they came every day to see if we were going to reopen the centre.

After that I convinced my bosses to open again.

What happened to Mahmood?

After a couple of months of rehabilitation, on his last day at the centre, the Mujahideen started fighting so we had to run away to a shelter.

I remember that Mahmood was running with his son, who said: “Father, you are faster than me!”

I heard his father say, “Look, now I can walk! You can go to school!”

Then I saw them going home, pushing the empty wheelchair, it was a kind of epiphany that really changed my life.

This man received new legs and got his dignity back.

What has happened since then?

We never closed again. Apart from a couple of hours in 1995 and 1996, we’ve stayed open ever since.

Now we receive at least 350 patients every day; it’s a never-ending job.

We have 7,500 new patients every year, of which only around 1,000 are war victims.

The rest include children with deformities, people with other disabilities or survivors of car accidents.

How have you developed the Kabul centre?

We started a positive discrimination policy and now we only employ and train disabled people. It’s fantastic.

Now everyone you come across – from the person opening the gate, to the person at the admission desk or the physiotherapist – has a disability.

If you are a person coming in for the first time, you see that all the people working there are like you. You get an injection of hope.

What else can patients do?

In 2010, we started a sports programme. We have just opened a new gym and had the first girls’ wheelchair basketball practice inside. It was quite emotional. Sport is the perfect combination of physical rehabilitation and social integration; it’s an incredible tool.

Do you ever feel like leaving Kabul?

Never. My team really make a difference; I feel that this is really where I want to be.

SEE ALSO: 'When I see children hurt, there's no room for fear'

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Spain’s basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end

Three months after Spain rushed to launch a minimum basic income scheme to fight a spike in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the programme is at a dead-end because of an avalanche of applications.

Spain's basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end
Red Cross volunteers bring food packages to elderly and low income people. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
The measure was a pledge made by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftwing coalition government, which took office in January, bringing together his Socialist party with far-left Podemos as the junior partner.
The scheme — approved in late May — aims to guarantee an income of 462 euros ($546) per month for an adult living alone, while for families, there would be an additional 139 euros per person, whether adult or child, up to a monthly maximum of 1,015 euros per home. It is expected to cost state coffers three billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year.
The government decided to bring forward the launch of the programme because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Spain hard and devastated its economy, causing queues at food banks to swell.
Of the 750,000 applications which were filed since June 15 when the government started accepting requests, 143,000 — or 19 percent — have been analysed and 80,000 were approved, according to a social security statement issued on August 20.
'Months of waiting'
But Spain main civil servant's union, CSIF, paints a darker picture. “Nearly 99 percent of requests have not been processed,” a union spokesman, Jose Manuel Molina, told AFP.
The social security ministry has only really analysed 6,000 applications while 74,000 households that already receive financial aid were awarded the basic income automatically, he added.
For hundreds of thousands of other households, the wait is stressful. Marta Sanchez, a 42-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Seville, said she applied for the scheme on June 26 but has heard nothing since.
“That is two months of waiting already, when in theory this was a measure that was taken so no one ends up in the streets,” she added.
Sanchez lost her call centre job during Spain's virus lockdown while her husband lost his job as a driver. The couple has had to turn to the Red Cross for the first time for food.
“Thank God my mother and sister pay our water and electricity bills,” she said, adding their landlord, a relative, has turned a blind eye to the unpaid rent.
'Rushed everything'
A spokeswoman for the ministry acknowledged that the rhythm “was perhaps a bit slower than expected” but she said the government was working to “automate many procedures” so processing times should become faster from now on.
“The launch of a benefit is always difficult … and this situation is not an exception,” she added.
But Molina said this was a new situation, that was made worse by years of budget cuts to the public service which has lost 25 percent of its staff over the past decade.
“The problem is that they rushed everything, did it without training and a huge lack of staff,” he added.
The social security branch charged with the basic income scheme has only 1,500 civil servants, who also process most pension applications, Molina said.
These officials are facing an “avalanche” of requests, which already match the number of pension requests received in an entire year, he added.
About 500 temporary workers have been recruited as reinforcements but their assistance is limited because they do not have the status of civil servant, so they cannot officially approve requests for financial aid.
Demand is expected to increase. The government has said the measure was expected to benefit some 850,000 homes, affecting a total of 2.3 million people — 30 percent of whom were minors.
When the scheme was launched the government said all it would take is a simple online form, but this is a problem for many low-income families without computers and internet access, especially since the waiting time for an in-person meeting to apply is about two months, according to the CSIF union