When we think about Iraq today, especially here in North America, it's hard not to be at least somewhat optimistic. Since the height of the violence against civilians in Iraq in 2006, when almost 28000 civilians were killed in violent attacks, the number of casualties has shrunk dramatically each year: 25000 in 2007, less than 5000 in 2009, and less than 4000 in 2010. That is, without question, a remarkable improvement.
The decline is impressive. But while it may be cause for cautious optimism, another number causes particular concern for aid workers operating in Iraq: 15. According to Firoz Jessa, a volunteer with Child Aid International (CAI), a non-profit NGO that sponsors orphans and widows in Iraq, 15 years is the length of time orphans require support until they can become self-sufficient and productive members of their families.
"It's staggering when you think about it," says Mr. Jessa. "Of all of the civilian deaths in Iraq, the overwhelming majority has been male adults. Male adults are the primary source of income for most families in Iraq. It's not hard to do the math: even with the violence easing as much as it has, our work is far from over."
But one of the challenges charitable organizations that operate in Iraq face is that as the violence in Iraq declines, so does media attention in North America – and with that attention goes support for fundraising efforts. That lack of support has led CAI to embark upon a unique fundraising effort that CAI's volunteers hope will generate significant attention for their activities.
Mr. Jessa mentions: "We're doing a walk-a-thon, but this is a little different. We're not going to stroll around [Vancouver's] Stanley Park or [New York's] Central Park." Instead, six volunteers will join millions of Iraqis and other pilgrims in a 90 km march between Najaf and Karbala.
"The condition of orphan children in Iraq is dire," explains Nouri al-Hassani, the President of CAI and the leader of the expedition. "By enduring the many challenges and hardships of a 90 km walk, we hope to make a difference in the lives of many orphan children."
Mr. al-Hassani's team of volunteers includes Blake Bromely, one of the world's foremost experts in charity law; Dr. Asif Tejani, a Vancouver-based hospital dentist; Michael Symons, a CAI Director; Azra Khalfan, a New York-based business manager; and Aatiya Zaidi, a Princeton-based manager in clinical research.
Called The Walk for Life, revert Muslim Mr. Symons says of the expedition: "Of course, it's going to be an incredible spiritual journey for all of us – but more than that, we're generating real awareness here in North America for Child Aid's vital work in the Middle East." Mr. Symons says he has found a lot of interest and support from non-traditional sources. "A lot of our fundraising tends to come from a religious base… But I've found that just by putting up a couple of posters at my office, sending out a couple of e-mails, and talking to friends and co-workers, the interest has been incredible. This trip raises a lot of eyebrows from Muslims and non-Muslims alike."
While they haven't reached their target of $100,000 for this fundraising effort, Mr. Symons is confident that the team will continue to build momentum Insh'Allah.
To donate to Child Aid International or to read more about their activities, please visit www.childaidinternational.org
Child Aid International strives to provide essential food, clothing, healthcare and education to all orphan children regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or faith. Managed and administered by dedicated volunteers, it has been actively assisting orphan children in Iraq since 2004. It currently sponsors over 400 orphan children in the country. Child Aid International is registered as a non-profit society in British Columbia, Canada and is registered a non-governmental organization in Iraq (NGO #2K70812).