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Iraqis renew hopes at TEDxBaghdad

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Three young men strummed on their guitar chords as they played the Iraqi national anthem to mark the opening of the ground for the first TEDx experience in Baghdad on Saturday.

Held at the al-Rasheed hotel in the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, TedxBaghdad unveiled the country’s innovators, movers and shakers of society both from inside and outside Iraq.

The Green zone, 10 square kilometers from central Baghdad, is a fortified center of the international presence of the city that is under tight protection. It served as the headquarters of successive Iraqi regimes including the former Ba’athist one.

TEDxBaghdad’s organizer, Yahay Alabdeli, an Iraqi refugee who lives in Amsterdam, told the audience that the theme of the event was “making the impossible possible,” and to “expose Iraqi talents and creativity for the world to know.”

In a surprise move, the country’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to the event created some controversy as people criticized it as the politicizing of a TEDx event. TEDx rarely has political officials give speeches at its events.

Maliki who hailed the event as an important indicator towards development and creativity, said Iraq’s “blackened era” of not participating in imparting knowledge to the world was due to the country’s politics and wars.

Reminiscing on Iraq once being the “cradle of civilization,” he said that his country would not recede again and promised to create a specialized higher committee to support the country’s creative talents.

Activists to help the disabled

One of the main themes of TEDx Baghdad was about Iraqis restoring hope to better lives.

A blind activist from Basra, Suroor Yousif, founder of The National Assembly of The Blind in Iraq, was the first of the speakers to share his experience.

“The epitome of creativity is to offer a service to a human being, and the human being is the greatest resource,” Yousif said. He said wars in Iraq contributed to the soaring high percentage ─ as high as 16 percent ─ of disabled Iraqis.

The disabled and marginalized do not have access to services or education so Yousif journeyed to offer his service ─ his activism ─ to the disabled.

He said for the past 10 years he has been working to help the illiteracy-ridden disabled Iraqis find employment. He said he helped more than 20 disabled individuals to work as telephone operators as “it does not require any movement.”

Another activist, Jeremy Courtney, an American philanthropist who decided to move with his family to Suleimaniya in northern Iraq told the audience that “violence unmakes the world.”

Courtney, co-founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition which helps Iraqi children with lifesaving heart surgeries, has helped 180 patients so far. He narrated the story of his first case, a girl named Khadija from northern Iraq, who received heart surgery; Courtney helped Khadija’s father, a shoe maker, sell his hand-made shoes on an online website to fund his daughter’s heart surgery in Turkey.

Khadija’s father, a Kurd, objected to his daughter’s surgeon being a Turkish doctor who he called a terrorist but because it was difficult to find doctors abroad, the Turkish surgeon was his only hope.

“The doctor was a good Muslim, a good Muslim,” Courtney reported Khadija’s father as saying after he returned from Turkey with his daughter and her recovered heart.

The epitome of creativity is to offer a service to a human being, and the human being is the greatest resource

Suroor Yousif, founder of The National Assembly of The Blind in Iraq

“Love remakes the world,” he added. “Preemptive Love is to pump in love to serve another.”

He said his group has also helped train Iraqi doctors to perform ground-breaking surgeries. “Before a surgery used to cost $10,000 outside Iraq, now it is only $700 in Iraq.”

Another moving story that gripped the audience was that of Inaam Jawad, founder of the Dina Lodging Institute. Jawad narrated the story of how she lost her husband and she was left to care for her two daughters, one of whom is disabled.

“I wondered why God would take my husband away when I have a disabled daughter,” Jawad said.

“When my daughter would return from school, she used to ask me ‘why people call me crazy?’,” she told the audience, expressing her sorrow that in Iraq there are little venues catering for disabled children, “There was no place I could enroll her without her being emotionally hurt by a society that marginalizes disabled people,” she said.

From meager beginnings selling drinks and sandwiches, Jawad was able to group disabled children together and created Dina Lodging Institute which houses over 60 physically or mentally disabled children and adults.

“Now my grown up daughter knows how to take care of other disabled children; now I can sleep knowing that I made a place for her in society and for others like my daughter,” she said.

“Now I know why God took my husband, so I could work better to give my services to these disabled children that have had no place in a society that rejected them.”

Another concerned parent to take to the TEDx stage was Wisam al-Tuwairji, who was determined to provide support for his daughter’s autism. He helped build an autism based school and restored hope for some of Iraq’s autistic children.

Preemptive Love is to pump in love to serve another

Jeremyu Courtney, co-founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition

Paying tributes to history

Manhal al-Habbobi is an architect who beat 30 competitors ─ including the internationally acclaimed British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid ─ to win the design for the building of the council of ministers in Baghdad.

He narrated how he came up with his design’s unique structure by combining ancient Summerian symbols with the flares of modern architecture. Habbobi who was at first immersed in detailing how he came up with the government building design, showed concerned about Iraq’s current situation. However, he ended his speech with a hopeful message of his country’s future, saying that “Iraq will recover, because Mesopotamia is thousands of years old.”

The environmental activist and civil engineer, Azzam al-Wash who says he’s a visionary whose life mission is to restore the ancient marshlands of Iraq, told the audience “the marshlands people are our link to the Summerian civilization.” Azzam and his wife, Suzie, founded the Eden Again project in an attempt to reverse what the United Nations has recognized is a major ecological and humanitarian disaster.

Destruction of history

“Iraq is like a page that has 10,000 pages; we cannot tear any of these pages,” said Ihsan Fethi, an urban planner and architect, who has written numerous papers and books on the destruction and deterioration of the country’s architectural heritage.

“Each city of Iraq was previously surrounded by gates, and unfortunately most of these gates got destroyed,” Fethi said. “Urban planners in Iraq do not understand the precious heritage we have, and it is our last chance to save what remains.

“Like children, they can toss a diamond in a trash bin because they do not understand its precious value.”

He called for the restoration of Iraqi heritage as well as a deeper understanding of history. “Heritage is what defines our national identity and Iraqi heritage is the best way of cementing our identity.”

Among the many helicopter-view pictures he showed, the most memorable one was a before and after image of a flattened land of a 3,000-year Assyrian castle in Kirkuk in 1998; he called it “a callous cultural crime.”

He urged the government to form a non-partisan, non-political higher council to keep an eye on the restoration of Iraqi heritage.

One of the speakers suggested marking the first of April as a cultural day for Iraqis to celebrate and cherish culture and knowledge. The first of April is the first day in the Babylonian calendar.

Heritage is what defines our national identity and Iraqi heritage is the best way of cementing our identity

Ihsan Fethi, an urban planner and architect

Memorable tweets

“Another remarkable step in the TEDx journey.”

“So proud of TEDxBaghdad, a step forward towards a great future.”

“They tear the country to pieces, then they gather and make films and conferences about it in a hotel located in the Green Zone.”

“If you are in Baghdad, you must know damn well that only very few people are not allowed in the Green Zone.”

“Everything starts with a first step, wonder if TEDxBaghdad won’t be in the Green Zone for 2012?”

To learn more about the other speakers at the event visit: http://www.tedxbaghdad.com/speakers/