The 2019 Nansen Refugee Award for Asia, conferred each year by UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, goes to physiotherapist Alberto Cairo. The Italian manages seven orthopedic centers in Afghanistan on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Alberto Cairo, an Italian physiotherapist in Kabul, has been named one of the winners of the UNHCR 2019 Nansen Refugee Award, UNHCR said in a statement released last Friday. Turin-born Cairo, 66, was chosen as the regional winner for Asia.
The European section of the award went to the Humanitarian Corridors initiative launched four years ago by a group of Italian faith-based organizations - Catholic charity Comunità di Sant'Egidio, Waldensian and Methodist churches - in collaboration with the Italian government.
The Nansen Refugee Award is often described as the “Nobel of refugees.”
Cairo's work in Afghanistan
Alberto Cairo is a legend in Kabul. He directs the seven centers for orthopedics run by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan.
As the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross orthopedic program, Cairo has dedicated nearly three decades of his life to providing prosthetic limbs and helping find jobs for injured Afghans.
Over the last five years, he was profiled twice by The New York Times. “A physical therapist in Kabul, providing more than exercise,” the US newspaper titled in December 2014.
In January this year, the Times profiled Cairo again on the 30th anniversary of the orthopedic program. “Quiet 'hero' marks 30 years restoring limbs, and dignity, in War” reads the article's headline.
“When you lose a leg, you don’t just lose a leg - you lose a piece of heart, you lose a piece of mind, you lose a piece of self-confidence,” Cairo was quoted in the article.
According to Cairo, the Red Cross program has cared for nearly 180,000 patients and built about 200,000 artificial limbs. Still, landmines remain a huge problem in Afghanistan.
Some 750 people work for Cairo and nearly all of them are former patients. A reported 50 percent of those who are killed or maimed by landmines are children.
Cairo, a lawyer-turned-physiotherapist, arrived in Kabul in 1989 planning to stay for a year. He never left.
From law school to prosthetic limbs
Cairo graduated from law school but never worked as a lawyer. He instead studied to become a physiotherapist, practicing on a wheelchair to better understand his patients' needs, and then joined the Red Cross.
He is famous in Afghanistan for turning an orthopedic center into a self-sufficient structure where the majority of artificial limbs, wheelchairs and other devices are made with local materials at the center.
Limbs cost much less than if they were produced abroad, and disabled people are employed to manufacture them. The center is also in charge of rehabilitation and provides training for patients, helping them get back into the job market also through loans and education.