I miss Texas. But the people of Iraq have captured my heart.
It was a difficult choice to spend a summer in Sulaymaniyah when the news has been filled with stories of journalists murdered and political corruption infiltrating the government, but I’m here because there is a country beyond the daily reports of violence and desperation.
I fell in love last week when I met one of the children here named Leah. Baby Leah was jwana, the Kurdish word for “beautiful.” And just one month ago that beautiful little girl was visiting the hospital because her heart is failing. She, like so many children here, is dying.
It was distressing to come to the realization that the nine-month-old, green-eyed baby girl had already been given a life expectancy of just a couple years. Born with Down Syndrome, Leah has made impressive progress with her range of physical motion and interaction with others as she demonstrated on the house visit by pouncing on toys, motioning to her sister, and rolling across the floor. But her fight is far from over. In addition to being born with Down Syndrome, Leah is dying of congenital heart disease.
Leah is one of nearly 4,000 children in Sulaymaniyah and the surrounding areas of northern Iraq who suffer from CHD, according to reports that have come out of the Kurdistan Save the Children non-government organization. Though specific causes for CHD have not been officially declared, several factors have impacted the increase in birth defects such as CHD. One explanation for this increase is the lasting effects of chemical warfare. Throughout the 1980s, Saddam Hussein and his regime brutalized the region by using the Kurdish inhabitants of northern Iraq as human experiments to test out the chemical weapons that they had either bought or produced. These atrocities, designed to extinguish the Kurds, have genetically altered generations and created the higher risk of birth defects.
Other strong factors that have influenced the spike in birth defects are the lack of quality prenatal care and the cultural traditions of intrafamily marriages. Because the area is heavily influenced by traditions and social norms, intrafamily marriages are still common.
With political corruption that eats through the economic system like a parasite, the country has experienced an increase in poverty levels within the last few years, leaving many families malnourished, hungry, or homeless. These social issues highlight the injustices of a people who have been tortured in their own land, kept in economic oppression by their own government, and condemned to watch their own children slowly die in front of them.
But the efforts to combat the results of injustice to the Kurds is what drew me to Iraq, especially to the work of the Preemptive Love Coalition. PLC, an NGO based in Sulaymaniyah, is designed to help raise money for children born with child heart disease and connect them to both local cardiologists and foreign surgical teams to give them a shot at life.
In 2007, Jeremy Courtney, a native Texan, was working for an American non-profit organization in Iraq when the vision was implanted. “It all started with one child,” Courtney, the now-director of PLC, said. The child that Courtney spoke of was a tiny four-year-old girl, the daughter of friends who had appealed to Courtney because of the American connections he had made in the country. Under the advice of the NGO he worked with, Courtney met with the girl and her father to break the news that because of limited resources he was not able to help them.
The young Kurdish girl impacted Courtney’s outlook of health care for children in Iraq. “As far as I know, nothing ever happened for that little girl,” Courtney said, “but it introduced me to an issue I didn’t know about.” From there he became impassioned about starting to break ground in researching heart surgeries because of the great need that he saw. “I would ride in taxis and talk about the official work that I was doing, but every time I would tell them about the story of the little girl, [others in the car] would tell me that they knew someone whose child had a heart problem,” Courtney said.
Though the problem was prevalent, there was little to no action on research, not to mention medical and financial assistance, to solve the problem. Around the same time Courtney met another American named Cody Fisher at a company conference in Sulaymaniyah. Fisher, a recent graduate and an employee for the same NGO as Courtney, became interested in the research and work that Courtney was pouring into the issue of CHD.
The two men had become immersed in the culture, and stumbled across the idea of selling handmade, traditional shoes that local shoemakers produced to friends in the States in order to raise funds for children’s cardiac screening and surgeries. The shoes, Kurdish Klash, made from cloth and leather fashioned together through pressure and careful detail, are each uniquely designed and produced by dying, compressing, fashioning and sewing the materials to form a product that could slip on over an individual’s foot.
Within the first week they received 40 pre-orders after expecting a maximum of 10, and found that people were willing to use their money to help fund the surgeries. Courtney and Fisher began investing in the business that they named “Buy Shoes. Save Lives.” and within the first two months donated nearly $5,000. The money was enough to fund their first child, Ara, to undergo surgery and gain attention from people in the States as a legitimate business. “It wasn’t just an idea anymore. There was a demonstrable action that they could connect with their purchase,” Courtney said.
Throughout 2007 and 2008 the business began to grow, and more surgeries were funded. Looking to have a more direct connection between families, local cardiologists, and surgeons, the ever-growing team started considering the possibility of becoming their own non-profit organization. Out of the many reasons that arose to support the change, the biggest factor was that the team would be directly involved in the process of helping these children get to surgery rather than continuing as merely a business funding heart surgeries through other non-profit organizations, which did not follow up with the children after the operation.
After things started to come together and the team slowly grew distinct from other NGOs in the region, they solidified relationships with families, local cardiologists, and surgeons as the Preemptive Love Coalition, and in the fall of 2008 signed a contract with the Johns Hopkins University affiliate in Istanbul to take children there for heart surgeries.
Since then, PLC has provided more than 40 kids with successful heart surgeries, and in July Leah’s name will be added to that list. PLC has a more mature face than it did a year and a half ago, and is looking to make an even bigger impact on the area this July with its Remedy Missions—a round of surgeries that would bring medical equipment to the area to have heart-mending surgeries performed within the country. These more localized forms of surgeries will make it easier for children to get to their surgeries without having to travel to different countries, and will empower the local doctors to do more in their community. PLC’s goal of seeing 30 children touched in 30 days, if realized, will mean that each week five to six children will have the opportunity to undergo surgery instead of a maximum of one child every other week.
As a summer intern with PLC, I’m looking forward to working, learning, and writing for the bigger purpose that is being established here—looking past ethnic, religious, and cultural stereotypes to save lives that are being ignored.