Humanitarians are special people to begin with. If you Google the definition of humanitarian, you’ll find adjectives like “compassionate, charitable, humane, and altruistic".
As with all professions, there are some who are better than others. And then there are the exceptional… humanitarians whose selflessness and dedication are simply beyond measure.
Alberto Cairo is one of the exceptional ones. And today, he was awarded the highest accolade bestowed by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – the Henry Dunant Medal, which recognizes outstanding humanitarian commitment by the Movement’s members.
No one deserves this honor more than Alberto.
An honorary Afghan
Humble, unassuming, and wonderfully entertaining, Alberto heads the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation program in Afghanistan. He received the award for his 22 years of service in the country, where he is known as “the honorary Afghan”.
An Italian lawyer turned physiotherapist, he joined the ICRC in 1990 and was assigned to our Surgical Hospital for War Wounded in Kabul.
He never left.
Today, he runs seven prosthetic and orthotic centers in the country, providing disabled people with both the physical resources and the dignity to stand tall again.
An uncommon story
In 2011, I invited Alberto to give a talk at TEDxRC2, an event I curated for the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Switzerland.
Over many months, Alberto and I went back and forth by email, exchanging versions of his talk between Kabul and Geneva. He wanted to tell the story of Mahmood, a man with no legs and only one arm, and his little boy Rafi, whom Alberto had encountered years before during a bombing raid as he was driving home.
I remember weeping in my garden in Geneva as I read one of the many drafts of the story. But it wasn’t a sad tale that Alberto wanted to tell. It was a lesson about the triumph of the human spirit and the common desire, of all people, to be productive members of society.
Mahmood, Rafi, and Alberto’s “right-hand man”, Najmuddin had taught him that “scraps of men do not exist” and that “dignity cannot wait for better times”.
The power of humanity
It was a crisp November day in Switzerland when the big TEDxRC2 event finally took place. Alberto was to give the last talk of the evening.
I had been waiting for this moment for months.
Alberto took the stage and started telling his story, Mahmood’s story, Rafi’s story and Najmuddin’s story. True to his character, Alberto began by saying that he is “not a particularly brave man”… but he couldn’t ignore what he saw in front of him.
(I won’t spoil the story for you but you can see it here.)
At a certain point during his talk, Alberto froze a little bit. (It’s not easy to give a TEDx talk. In fact, it’s unlike anything else – theatric almost in its delivery. And there is a clock ticking down in front of you, adding unwanted pressure.)
You could feel the electricity in that room. The audience held its collective breath, willing Alberto forward. We needed to know how Mahmood’s story would end.
Alberto summoned the strength to continue and delivered a triumphant talk – one that has since been viewed on TED.com more than 650,000 times.
The next day, driving Alberto to the airport, ironically, he was unhappy with how things had gone. He wasn’t convinced that he’d done an effective job of conveying all he’d wanted to say.
I reminded him of the standing ovation he’d received – the only one of the evening – pointing out that he had once again done his job: he had brought people to their feet and left us with all with a greater sense of the power of humanity.
Today, as he is awarded the Henry Dunant Medal, I couldn’t be more proud to call Alberto Cairo my colleague, my hero, and my friend.
By Anna Nelson, Editor of Intercross
To learn more, please click on the text below:
Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC's physical rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan, has helped an estimated 100,000 Afghans disabled by landmine explosions and other accidents. His strong-held belief is that helping people walk again is not enough - they need to stand tall with dignity, pride a job and a place in society. After two decades working in war-torn Afghanistan, Alberto has been awarded the Henry Dunant Medal for his service to humanity.