Humanitarian leader calls for fundraisers to cherish change

At the closing plenary of the 2015 International Fundraising Congress, award-winning humanitarian leader and head of the Red Cross's physical rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan Alberto Cairo reflects on the experiences in Afghanistan that made him understand how change can bring "new life".

In the closing plenary at the 2015 International Fundraising Congress (IFC), Alberto Cairo started off his speech standing against the backdrop of his opening words: “I do not like changes.”

Cairo is the head of the physical rehabilitation programme of the international Red Cross in Afghanistan and has been awarded the Henry Dunant medal for services to humanity. Successive conflicts have kept him and his team of physicians busy fitting prosthetic limbs to people caught in the crossfire for more than 25 years. In that time he has seen plenty of changes in the country. “Changes scare me, I think it is because I am not a particularly confident person,” Cairo said.

Little did he know it at the time but getting assigned to the surgical hospital for war wounded in Kabul in 1990 would mean more than just working as a physiotherapist. Cairo has something of the Woody Allen about him, a man who just wants a quiet life but is constantly put upon and tries to resist – but ultimately is too much of a nice guy to say no forever.

His speech centred around a life changing experience. In 1992 he encountered Mahmood, a man with only one arm and without legs, in his wheelchair in the middle of a road. He was trying to escape a bomb blast and had one of his children with him. Cairo invited him to the hospital and before long Mahmood was standing on his feet again. He noticed that Mahmood was still unhappy and would shy away from looking him in his eye.

One day Mahmood said to Cairo: “I am a scrap of man but if you help me I would be ready to do anything even if have to crawl on the ground. I want a job.” Cairo was initially at a loss to know how to help him. “Without legs, without one arm, illiterate, what could we do for him?” He offered a one week trial working on the production line manufacturing prosthetic limbs, expecting him to fail. 

But Mahmood had a reason to prove himself and worked faster than anyone else around him. His dignity returned and he was an example of what physical rehabilitation and financial independence could offer a person. Cairo had a revelation: “These legs were not just prosthetic like they were to me, they were pieces of life that had been put back together.”

You have to cherish the changes. They bring new life, new things

Other challenges for Cairo followed. A woman who came to the hospital with a son paralysed by disease came to ask for help. Cairo explained that, as the child was not a war victim, he could not help. The woman turned up every day and was followed by other people who were physically impaired, up to 50 a day at one point. Someone found out that he had worked in Africa educating about and treating people with polio – the locals asked him to teach them. Some of the people that he treated in wheelchairs decided they wanted to play wheelchair basketball but Cairo protested, citing the $4,000 cost of the athletic chairs. On each occasion he found a way to help.

Cairo had just returned from Japan, where the Afghan wheelchair basketball team had been trying to qualify for the Olympics. “I was the team manager”, Cairo said with a shrug, “My main task was to do the laundry.” Cairo appears very humble and seems to have had to fight his fear of change to let life in. The point of the stories arrived soon after. “People have taught me not to be afraid of changes. You have to cherish the changes. They bring new life, new things. They taught me also you should not be content with little, with ‘good enough’ if you think that more is needed. One must dare. The changes took me away and I became part of them.”

The speech had a stirring effect. At the end of a busy few days at the IFC, a crowd that arrived a little jaded filed out of the event in Amsterdam newly rejuvenated. 


Photo credit: International Committee of the Red Cross