Fahim was only 11 years old when he first met Alberto Cairo in 1993 at a hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kabul.
He had come in pain seeking treatment after his left leg had been blown off by a landmine. At the time, the Afghan capital was in the throes of a brutal civil war that saw Kabul divided among the forces of warring strongmen, each looking to assert their rule over the city.
What he could not have known was that in the middle of one of Afghanistan’s bleakest periods he would find an unlikely friend and champion in an Italian lawyer turned physiotherapist, who had himself arrived in Kabul just three years prior.
“He is a friend of the Afghan people,” Fahim said of Cairo.
Over the next three decades, as Fahim grew older and taller, he would make countless trips to the ICRC hospital. Each time he came, Cairo was there to greet him in his Italian-accented Dari. During those visits, the compassionate treatment he received made a deep impression on Fahim.
“I saw how they treated each patient, like a friend.”
“I saw how they treated each patient, like a friend, and I decided that I too must help my people.”
When he decided to pursue studies in nursing and eventually anaesthesiology, it was Cairo who kept encouraging him. Today, Fahim works as a nurse and an anaesthesiologist in a hospital in Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province.
Fahim is but one example of the legacy Cairo hopes to leave behind in the city that has become his home for the past 30 years.
Though Cairo himself has been the subject of many media reports, he would rather have the attention focused on the seven orthopaedic centres he runs, the 750 staff working in those centres – nearly all of whom are former patients with disabilities of their own – and the thousands of patients they have helped over the years.
In his early years in Afghanistan, as one conflict led to another, Cairo was struck by the sheer number of patients seeking treatment for landmine, bullet, and shrapnel wounds. Each year, the rehabilitation centres he runs treat more than 13,000 new patients – the vast majority of whom, like Fahim, require lifetime treatment.
“My final goal for each patient is to be reintegrated into society and for them to live with dignity,” said Cairo while waiting to begin his daily rounds in the West Kabul rehabilitation centre, where many of his patients have been displaced by ongoing conflict and insecurity in the South-Central Asian nation.
“My final goal for each patient is to be reintegrated into society and for them to live with dignity."
For his work dedicated to empowering Afghans with disabilities, Cairo has been chosen as the regional winner for Asia of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that honours those who go to extraordinary lengths to support refugees and displaced people.
The overall winner of the award will be announced on 2 October and it will be presented by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland, on 7 October.
For Cairo, a career in physical rehabilitation came by chance.
“I was a teenager in Italy when I saw a man doing something that seemed so simple and so helpful: helping people to walk.”
That moment made such a strong impression that he eventually left his training as a lawyer behind to pursue physiotherapy.
Prior to arriving in Kabul, Cairo spent three years working in the area that is now part of the nation of South Sudan, itself roiled by years of endless conflict. When he began his practice in Kabul, the ICRC’s treatment centre was devoted solely to war victims, but he eventually expanded the mandate to include all people with disabilities in the country.
It is estimated that anywhere between 400,000 and 655,000 Afghans suffer from some form of disability. With the Afghan Government’s limited budget, including health care, largely reliant on foreign aid – which has dwindled in recent years – Cairo is constantly looking for new ways to serve a population that frequently faces social discrimination.
This led him to make two decisions that have left a lasting impact on the ICRC’s legacy in Afghanistan. One was to ensure that treatment centres under his care be staffed to the extent possible by former patients. The second was to create an athletic league for people with disabilities.
“I saw these girls and boys playing basketball and I thought to myself, why should anyone be denied the joy of sport just because they have a problem with their arms or their legs?”
Since he set up the athletic programme, dozens of staff in the rehabilitation centres have been among its beneficiaries. Today, Cairo is confident that he made the right choice.
“Who would have known,” he says. “Just because someone may lack legs or arms, they can do so many other things.”
The Nansen Refugee Award is named in honour of Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, who was appointed by the League of Nations in 1921. The Award aims to showcase his values of perseverance and commitment in the face of adversity.
You can read about the other regional winners of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award here.