When Michelle Chagpar, an information technology professional from Toronto, told her employers she was taking two weeks leave to travel to Iraq to carry out humanitarian work, they were more than a little taken aback. “They were very surprised,” she says. “But just before leaving, I mentioned it to a client and they asked how they could get involved. For the most part, that’s been the reaction from people.”
Concern over Canadians visiting Iraq right now is far from misplaced. With the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Iraqi forces still battling over control of Tikrit, and dozens of foreigners – from charity workers to journalists – kidnapped and killed on a daily basis, Iraq remains highly dangerous, particularly for Westerners. Only a handful of international charities remain in the country.
“We are so blessed, especially in Canada, that we need to give back as much as possible.” – Dr. Hasnain Dewji
The volunteers from the BC-based charity Global Kindness face an even greater threat. Most of them belong to the Shia sect of Islam – the minority group that has been targeted most brutally by ISIS. ISIS fighters believe that the Shias are heretics and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam. While Yazidis, Turkmen, Christians and the country’s other minorities have also been singled out, the risk to Shia Muslims is far more widespread. Last year, ISIS claimed on Twitter that it had killed at least 1,700 Shias in one month alone.
But that hasn’t stopped Vancouver dentist Dr. Hasnain Dewji from venturing on a high-risk mission to Iraq with Global Kindness, which he founded in 2002. The charity takes at least two trips each year to provide medical, dental and optical services to people in impoverished countries. It has run missions in Iraq before, but not since the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2014.
500 Children Treated
This year, 24 Canadians, including nine dentists, an orthodontist, a periodontist, a paediatric dentist and nine other trained volunteers, joined the mission. They left Canada for the southern city of Najaf via Turkey on March 19 and so far have treated about 500 children, most of whom are orphans, in the southern cities of Kazmain, Kerbala and Najaf. Treatments range from preventative care in the form of fissure sealants to fillings, extractions and stainless steel crowns.
“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching. One of the kids we saw last time was known to never smile or laugh. He told me he was sitting in his dad’s lap when his dad was shot dead.” – Dr. Hasnain Dewji
“We are so blessed, especially in Canada, that we need to give back as much as possible,” Dewji says. “And the people we help are very appreciative. They tell us that very few people are willing to give their time and skills, and that being treated with dignity and compassion is something they don’t see often.”
“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching,” he adds. “One of the kids we saw last time was known to never smile or laugh. He told me he was sitting in his dad’s lap when his dad was shot dead.”
“I fixed his teeth… But I couldn’t get him to smile.”
Volunteers Impacted Forever
Volunteering overseas is something the Ugandan-born dentist feels so strongly about that he’s turned it into a family experience. His nine-year-old daughter happily joined the Iraq mission this year. “She likes playing with the kids and giving them the gifts we bring for them after their treatment,” says his wife, and fellow volunteer, Fatemah. Their four other children have also joined Global Kindness on previous trips to Cambodia, Peru and Haiti.
For Chagpar (pictured to the left), a vice-president at a software company, a humanitarian dental mission abroad initially felt far out of her comfort zone. But the Iraq trip this year marks her fourth mission with the charity and she says she comes back to Canada feeling inspired each time. “One time we treated a boy with long hair,” she recalls. “In Iraq, the boys all have really short hair, so it was a bit odd to see. After inquiring, we learnt that the boy has been injured in a bomb blast and had extensive scarring, hence the long hair. Whenever I feel down, or like I’ve lost focus on what’s important, I think of him. Even after everything he had been through he would still be laughing.”
“You could see the devastation on the country side the war has caused, but you could also see how these people are trying to overcome it. They are slowly, but surely, rebuilding and that is an amazing thing to see.” – Michelle Chagpar
Another pivotal moment for the group came during the long drive from Kazmain to Karbala with a driver who said he was a high-ranking soldier on leave from the army. “He pointed out areas along the way where the army had pushed back against ISIS,” says Chagpar. “You could see the devastation on the country side the war has caused, but you could also see how these people are trying to overcome it. They are slowly, but surely, rebuilding and that is an amazing thing to see – and you see that attitude in the orphaned children as well. They don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Twenty-one other volunteers from Global Kindness’ U.S., U.K. and Africa chapters joined the group on this mission. The Canadian volunteers will be returning on April 3.