Afghanistan: All they need is an opportunity

I had read much about Alberto Cairo. A former lawyer from Italy who came to Afghanistan by chance, he's been working in Afghanistan for almost 25 years and runs the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul.

The ICRC has seven such centres in Afghanistan. The Kabul centre is in the west of the city, close to Kabul University and Kabul Medical University. As you pass through the gate you enter another world, in which almost everyone bears the marks of conflict, reminding us that this is Afghanistan, this is Kabul.

As we waited in Alberto's office, two black cats ran in and snuggled up to us. When Alberto strode in and saw us stroking his cats, he pretended to be angry, exclaiming "Don't steal my cats!" before carrying one of them outside.

Alberto plays with one of his beloved cats. CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/Shuangfeng Zhang

Alberto served us tea and talked about the centre as if he knew every brick and blade of grass personally. People came in from time to time to ask for his signature, I noticed that he spoke fluent Pashto. Having been in the country for over 25 years, not only has he changed the destiny of many locals, but they have changed him.

As he took us on a tour of the centre, Alberto stopped to pick up artificial limbs and explain how they worked. It was hard to believe that this expert in prostheses and physical rehabilitation was originally a lawyer.

Alberto explains a prosthesis made by the centre.  CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/Shuangfeng Zhang

Alberto is proud of the wheelchair basketball team, made up of patients and staff from the centre. He came up behind one of the team members and said teasingly "You're terrible! Work on it!" before turning round and giving us the thumbs-up sign. "In fact he's awesome!" he admitted.

A national wheelchair basketball team was formed in 2013, with sponsorship from the Afghan Paralympics Committee and support from the ICRC. A year later, the team flew to Italy to play in an international tournament.

Wheelchairs at the centre. CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/Shuangfeng Zhang

The centre currently has more than 300 wheelchairs, all bought in China. A Chinese journalist in the delegation was unable to resist taking one for a spin. "Good steering, good brakes," he enthused.

"Only disabled people can play in the basketball team," quipped Alberto. "We call it 'positive discrimination'."

One of the visiting journalists tries a wheelchair. CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/Shuangfeng Zhang

Many of the centre's staff have benefited from its services, which are provided free of charge. Amputees often decide to stay on after regaining their mobility, seizing the opportunity to change their own lives and those of their families. There are over 200 staff, all of them amputees. The centre also provides vocational training, enabling people with disabilities to earn a living.

Staff work on prosthetic limbs.  CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/Shuangfeng Zhang

"Even when they're disabled, Afghans have unlimited potential. All they need is an opportunity," said Alberto, becoming suddenly serious and answering my unspoken question as to how he could work here for 25 years.

A boy learns to walk again. CC BY-NC-ND/ICRC/Shuangfeng Zhang

Alberto sent us off to spend the afternoon visiting local patients and hurried back to his office, telling us he was due to meet the Afghan Paralympics Committee – "We want to take part in the Paralympics!"