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Henry Dunant medal to Alberto Cairo for his work for the disabled in Afghanistan

17-11-2013 News Release 13/198

Sydney/Kabul/Geneva (ICRC) – Alberto Cairo, head of the physical rehabilitation programme of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan, today received the Henry Dunant Medal, the highest award of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which recognizes outstanding humanitarian commitment by its members. This prize is in recognition of the programmes he has set up, which not only respond to the physical needs of people with disabilities, but promote equal opportunities for them and enable them to live in dignity.


Mr Cairo is one of the few ICRC staff members to ever receive this honour, which was bestowed on him for his 22 years of selfless service in Afghanistan. A lawyer turned physiotherapist, he joined the ICRC in 1990 and was assigned to its Surgical Hospital for War Wounded in Kabul. He runs the seven ICRC prosthetic/orthotic centres in the country, which provide disabled people with physical rehabilitation and help them regain their place in society.

"Back in 1992, I accidentally met a man who changed my life, and the lives of so many others,” said Mr Cairo, recalling how his vocation of helping disabled Afghans arose. “Mahmood, a man with only one arm and without legs, was in the middle of the road in his wheelchair, with his scared little child, both desperately trying to move away from a nearby bomb blast."

"I couldn’t resist inviting him to our centre in Kabul, although it was closed at the time due to the fighting. After a successful treatment, Mahmood stood on his feet again, but still looked very disturbed. Perhaps more than the legs and arm, he needed a job. He called himself a 'scrap of a man,' and desperately wanted his dignity back. I nervously gave him a one-week try-out assembling artificial limbs. Surprisingly, he became the fastest worker in the production line, for he worked with immense passion. He had a reason to prove himself, and he regained his dignity."

Mahmood was living proof of the change that physical rehabilitation and financial independence could bring to a disabled person. The centre reopened, and the ICRC adopted a positive discrimination policy in all its prosthetic/orthotic centres in Afghanistan, where it employs only disabled people formerly treated in the centres in order to demonstrate that full reintegration in society after physical rehabilitation is possible. Over 80,000 people are treated in the centres every year.

"Today, our physiotherapists go themselves to people who need treatment but cannot come to a centre," said Mr Cairo. "More people like Mahmood have kept up the positive momentum. They are icons of strength for new patients, and they have incredible dedication. Thanks to their efforts, no one is ever a 'scrap of a man' anymore. I wish that a similar policy be adopted in other countries too."

The award was conferred by the Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, during the Council of Delegates in Sydney, Australia, where the 189 National Societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the ICRC have gathered to discuss the most pressing humanitarian and development challenges of the day, as well as future priorities.

The Henry Dunant Medal award was created in 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Movement.

For further information, please contact:
Robin Waudo, ICRC Kabul, tel: +93 707 740 526
Anastasia Isyuk, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 30 23 or +41 79 251 93 02
Ewan Watson, ICRC Geneva (currently in Sydney), tel: +41 79 244 64 70