by The Stringer
Wheelchairs for Kids is a one of a kind organisation – in fact one of a kind worldwide. It is a Rotary Organisation not-for-profit volunteer group of retirees who manufacture wheelchairs for children and then donate them throughout the world. The queue is long, as if unending.
Tom Thompson, Bob Parry and Olly Pickett of ‘Wheelchairs for Kids’ with one of the wheelchairs headed to Iraq for children who have had limbs blown off during war or by landmines, Photo – Simon Santi
The organisation has been working for 14 years from a factory funded by Rotary and the goodwill of citizen donors. Led by Brother Ollie Pickett, the 112 retirees are on the books rostered Monday to Friday from 9am to 1pm – having been trained up to build wheelchairs from scratch – hardened up wheelchairs for third world and developing world conditions.
They build the chairs at a rate of 330 per month. 25,000 have been donated to 61 countries during the 14 years of Wheelchairs for Kids.
In the last couple of decades, the Iraqi Al Munthanna and Basra regions have endured a disproportionate rate of child amputees.
This is why the Gnangara-based Wheelchairs for Kids and the social justice organisation the Human Rights Alliance work tirelessly to send wheelchairs to Iraq and elsewhere throughout the world to the child amputees whose families cannot afford the wheelchairs.
Alliance convener Gerry Georgatos said children made up to 20 per cent of amputees in Iraq, were victims of war, high levels of radioactivity and unexploded landmines from the Gulf warring.
“The radioactivity in the Al Muthanna region and in Basra from depleted uranium used during the war has led to a disproportionate number of babies with deformities,” he said.
“Many will never be able to walk.”
“And there are more than 50,000 amputees in Iraq, many of them women and children.”
Mr Georgatos has spent seven years fundraising to ship at every opportunity batches of 330 pre-assembled wheelchairs to Iraq. During the last several months he has extended his fundraising to ensure container loads of wheelchairs will be sent to Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan.
The Human Rights Alliance will not stop sending wheelchairs to Iraq, not until all the children who need them and will never get them otherwise do have them.
Riyadh Al-Hakimi was brought to tears watching a small Iraqi child drag himself along the street. The stump of his right leg left a trail in the dust as he dragged his body inch by inch. It was 2003 and Riyadh would soon be on his way to Australia and to a university education; however he vowed to do something for the children of his war-torn homeland.
The table below summarises some of the Iraqi casualty figures.
Sources of Iraqi casualties:
151,000 deaths – March 2003 to June 2006
601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths – March 2003 to June 2006
1,033,000 deaths as a result of conflict – March 2003 to August 2007
103,536 to 113,125 civilian deaths – March 2003 to April 2009
150,726 civilian and combatant deaths – March 2003 to October 2011
Wikileaks classified – Iraq War Logs
109,032 deaths including 66,081 civilian deaths – January 2004 to December 2009
Mr Al-Hakimi said, “I watched as he dragged himself, leaving a pitiful trail in the dust. There are many of these trails in Iraqi towns. Like many thousands of other Iraqi children who have lost limbs during years of war in Iraq, there was nothing that could be done for the boy. Our country has been devastated by the war, and it takes every effort to find the strength to cope with each day.”
“10,000 Iraqi children who will never be able to walk are without wheelchairs – similarly there are 50,000 adults in this predicament.”
Up to 2009 over one million Iraqis had met violent deaths as a result of the 2003 invasion according to one British research group. Contextually, these numbers indict the invasion and occupation of Iraq with a degree of equivalency to Rwanda’s genocide – in 1994 the Rwanda genocide stole between 800,000 to 900,000 lives. The infamous Cambodian “Killing Fields” cost 1.7 million lives.
In August 2011, Reuters from Baghdad reported “The number of civilians killed by violence in Iraq rose to 159 in July from 155 in June, matching January with the highest toll so far for 2011, according to health ministry figures.”
Reuters continued, “Violence has dropped sharply since the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006-2007, but killings and attacks still happen almost daily… The number of Iraqi police killed declined to 56 in July from 77 in June, while 44 soldiers were killed in July in comparison to 39 killed in June, according to figures from interior and defence ministries… The ministries said 199 civilians, 135 police officers and 119 soldiers were wounded in July attacks… At least 28 people were killed and 58 wounded on July 5 when a car bomb and a roadside bomb blew up in a crowded parking lot outside a government building in the town of Taji, just north of Baghdad. The explosions hit police, government workers and Iraqis lining up for national identity cards.”
16 April 2009, The Independent reported, “Analysis carried out for the research group Iraq Body Count found that 39% of those killed in air raids by the US-led coalition were children and 46% were women. Fatalities caused by mortars, used by American and Iraqi government forces as well as insurgents, were 42% children and 44% women.”
Mr Al-Hakimi said, “The years of sanctions have deeply affected Iraqi society and people have learned to survive individually and have lost the sense of community and caring for others.”
“As a result of the 1991 Gulf War the province of Al Muthanna is littered with thousands of unexploded landmines and missiles.”
“There are many heartbreaking stories of disabled children in Iraq.”
Most children amputees in non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries are victims of wars - bullets, explosives, bombs, land mines and missiles.
Basra has been devastated by the war with most families having lost a family member, with many orphaned children and with most families caring for a family member who has been physically impaired. Let us not forget that Iraq’s Al Munthanna and Basra were laid victim to depleted uranium during the war and hence they have levels of cancers unheralded in terms of their incidence and rates since Chernobyl. In Al Munthanna province languish thereabouts thirty radioactive sites.
Firstly, through the Centre for Human Rights at Curtin University and hence through a tertiary student volunteer organisation, Students Without Borders, Gerry Georgatos met Curtin University student and Iraqi Riyadh Al-Hakimi. In 2006 Mr Al-Hakimi described to then Murdoch University Guild General Manager and founder of Students Without Borders, Gerry Georgatos much of the devastation of Basra.
“There was nowhere to turn to find a readily available wheelchair nor could the parent afford to have one imported. Much of Iraq’s infrastructure had been devastated by the drawn out war.”
“Life had been further complicated by the vehement acrimony between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Riyadh often described to me an Iraq before the invasion, where it did not matter whether someone was Sunni or Shi’ite and marriage and business between Sunnis and Shi’ites occurred on a daily basis. I will never forget what Riyadh once said to me, ‘Till this war was started on us in Iraq, no-one ever asked me whether I am Sunni or Shi’ite. Never.’”
“Riyadh and I teamed up through Students Without Borders to send as many wheelchairs as we could to the Iraqi towns of Najaf, Samawa and Ramadi. During 2008 we had planned on securing 200 wheelchairs however Riyadh secured 327 new wheelchairs generously donated by Gnangara manufacturer Wheelchairs for Kids. However there began a long saga – no shipping company would transport the wheelchairs to Iraqi port. It was deemed too dangerous.”
“I had coordinated the shipping of many sea containers usually full of recycled computers to various parts of the world. This was the first time we were rejected by every shipping company.”
Australian Senator Christopher Evans assisted.
“Woodside Petroleum donated funds to cover the transport from Perth to Sydney – to Moorebank Air Base.”
“Senator Chris Evans approached the Australian Defence Forces.”
“On a Saturday morning, the staff of Wheelchairs for Kids with students from Trinity College packed the shipping container. We organised the transport to Sydney’s ADF Moorebank airbase, and from there they were flown to Kuwait.”
“Riyadh met the ADF convoy at the Kuwaiti border. The ADF transported them by convoy accompanied by Riyadh.”
“Riyadh disbursed them to the towns of Ramadi, Najaf and Samawa. Najaf is Riyadh’s hometown and it endures a high rate of amputees. Najaf and Samawa are predominately Shi’ite and Ramadi is predominately Sunni. Riyadh wanted this gesture to bring the two peoples together as had been his world prior to the war. The local Sunni hospital in Ramadi distributed over 100 wheelchairs – and community did view Riyadh’s gesture as one of goodwill and as striving towards reconciliation. Iraq is not what some of the news media portray – they portray our people as if they are irreparably divided which is not true.”
Riyadh Al Hakimi with 330 childrens wheelchairs having arrived at Um Quasr port.
Iraq’s infrastructure has been crippled, much of what has been blown away has not been replaced. People flee not only from persecution but also because they have no access to health or education nor any prospect for employment or of opportunity in general. If people better understood the UN Conventions in reference to Asylum Seekers they would realise that people have a right to life, liberty, security and the right to the protection and advancement of their families and their prospects.
Mr Al-Hakimi returned to Iraq to help his people, and despite the monthly loss of hundreds of lives by an unnatural hand in Iraq he describes an Iraq that is not as perilous as a couple of years ago. He describes an economically bare Iraq in desperate need of investment in basic services. He describes an Iraq where people lack hope (one of the devastating effects of the invasion) and where people scratch around for their daily needs with their heads down having little to do with one another, little to do with their community – their spirit diminished and disunited.
Georgatos and Al-Hakimi are working through The Human Rights Alliance to establish a wheelchair assembly factory in the heart of Al Muthanna, in Samawa. Mr Al-Hakimi resides in Samawa, and he coordinates Students Without Borders Samara (University) and will be on hand to ensure the planning of the factory. He is a political advisor to an Iraqi federal member of parliament from Al Munthanna. At this time the pair, Georgatos and Al-Hakimi, seek for the wheelchairs to be assembled at the prospective factory, so more can be shipped with each sea container – a large container can carry 330 wholly assembled wheelchairs however the same container can carry more than 1000 disassembled wheelchairs.
Mr Al-Hakimi has secured a block of land in Samawa for the factory – the land has been bought – and the people are waiting to be trained and employed. Georgatos contacted Motivation UK, a charity who specialises in the set-up aspects to help Mr Al-Hakim with the evaluation phase of the factory and to map out training and services. The wheelchairs comply with World Health Organisation guidelines so as to reduce toxaemia, bed sores, infections (which can lead to death).
“If we can secure some financial donors to help us underwrite a wheelchair factory where they can be assembled, and in the future manufactured from local resources, we will begin the journey for the demand for wheelchairs to be met. Subsequently, such a locally managed service will spawn other services required for maintenance and care. Obviously, we will generate much needed employment for some local Iraqis. Once we have children and adult amputees in wheelchairs produced from local resources, then prosthetics will arrive, localised prosthetic manufacturing and education institutes will be developed, and comprehensive basic health and medical services will be returned to the region to underwrite them. None of this is there at this time,” said Mr Georgatos.
The assembly factory will be in the hands of Iraqis – this is the only way – people should not be at the discretion of philanthropy – Iraqi advancement by Iraqi people.
2007 – recipients of the first 300 wheelchairs to Iraqi victims – this load of chairs was distributed to children in the towns of Najaf, Samara and Ramadi.
To provide 10,000 children’s wheelchairs preassembled will require 30 shipping containers and in turn take years – Georgatos and Al-Hakimi will continue with preassembled wheelchairs while as such time as they progress to a wheelchair assembly factory – however once the factory is established then this will permit the immediate demand for wheelchairs for children to be met in 10 shipments.
“To me, it is always tragic that the US or Australian government does not just organise 10,000 children’s wheelchairs
– they have certainly contributed an unnatural hand in the fact that these children are not able to walk,” said Mr Georgatos.
Mr Al-Hakimi said, “The idea of establishing a factory locally will strengthen community.The years of sanctions have deeply affected Iraqi society and people have learned to survive individually and have lost the sense of community and caring for each other. I have started working with university students and I teach them to care for one another and not expect anything in return. It is important that Iraqis run the project because it empowers them to do more for community and it makes them less reliant on foreign aid.”
He said that the development of a factory would be a first step, then the opportunity to establish a prosthetic limbs manufacture factory could eventuate and the opportunity for more localised basic medical services.
“A factory will mean that we will be able to ship 1000 unassembled chairs and accessories to them each time helping out three times more people,” Mr Georgatos said.
“If we can secure some financial donors to help us underwrite a wheelchair factory…and in the future manufacture parts locally from local resources, we will begin the journey for the demand for wheelchairs to be met.”
Mr Al-Hakimi said, “There are many heartbreaking stories of disabled children in Iraq. They place further burdens on families who struggle to feed their children.”
“In Iraq disabled children are excluded from social activities as there is no infrastructure, and many disabled children will not let their parents carry them on their shoulders, being too embarrassed. Many have stopped going to school.”
“In the street I live in there are six disabled children. Only one of them was able to receive a wheelchair from the load we sent.”
“Wheelchairs must be provided to every child that needs one in Iraq irrespective of their religion and ethnicity.”
Landmines still litter provinces killing and incapacitating adults and children, and children are especially vulnerable as many have been born after the first Gulf War. Al Munthanna, Iraq’s second largest province with a population in excess of 750,000, shares a border with Saudi Arabia, and as a result during the 1991 Gulf War became a battlefield and hence the unexploded landmines and missiles which are pocketed throughout the land. Foreign military forces will not journey certain areas they know too dangerous as a result of unexploded landmines and or which are dangerously radioactive. During 2005 Dutch forces declared some Al Munthanna regions far too dangerous because of the radioactive levels and withdrew and on leaving warned the locals. Villages and schools surround these radioactive sites. However, the locals have not relocated – they have nowhere else to go.
During 2008, the World Health Organisation released ‘Guidelines on the provision of Manual Wheelchairs in less resourced settings’ which now provide a standard of wheelchair provision in parts of the world lacking infrastructure and services that many of us in Australia take for granted. With the help of Motivation UK which specialises in wheelchair provision, a flat-pack form of affordable, adjustable and durable chairs will be assembled by the locally trained staff at the factory and fitted and adjusted and where necessary modified to each user.
If people wish to help they can contact Gerry Georgatos at email@example.com or call 0430 657 309.
“Often in working with or for not-for-profits I have found that they know exactly what to do and do not need the advice of governments and rather that it is the governments and their authorities who need to be advised or led by the not-for-profits. The not-for-profit humanitarian organisations, whether they are there for our homeless, our refugees, our poorest, our war-torn, etc., they know the streets so to speak, and they listen one on one – governments and their authorities are far removed. The consequences of leaving things in the hands of governments is 1) little changes and 2) they further disempower peoples which often the not-for-profits who are on the ground sadly have to witness.”
In recent months many have heard about the work of Wheelchairs for Kids, of the work of Mr Al-Hakimi, of the work of the Human Rights Alliance and have come to the fore wanting to assist.
NSW parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane wanted to assist and did. On December 4, 2012 Mr Moselmane coordinated a fundraiser among Sydney’s Arabic community – more than $30,000 was raised which ensured another 330 wheelchairs for Iraqi children and for several more containers – to Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan.
330 wheelchairs will be packed on March 13 (2013) and will leave the factory on March 14 for customs with their destination being the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.
On March 17 – ‘Harmony Day’ – Mr Moselmane will coordinate another fundraiser along with Mr Georgatos in Sydney’s west and he hopes to raise $50,000 to assist children in need around the world.
Some of Al Munthanna’s and Basra’s regions have been so devastated that they no longer have bitumen roads and pathways and instead are left with pot holed roads and stony dirt paths. These paths are not easily manageable by the fold up wheelchairs sent from Perth however at least the children in wheelchairs are not trapped in their homes. At least they are able to extend themselves from a confine within the home and relieve the absolute dependency upon others.
The witness of a child amputee dragging his body across a road at least need not occur.
Some of the 112 volunteers who work each week to manufacture children’s wheelchairs for victims of war, landmines and depleted uranium at Wheelchairs for Kids