Prize for Italian physiotherapist helping Afghans to walk again

Alberto Cairo wins the regional Nansen Refugee Award for his tireless work in empowering disabled Afghans

An Italian physiotherapist who has spent nearly 30 years in Afghanistan providing orthopaedic care to tens of thousands of disabled Afghans has been named a regional winner of this year’s Nansen Refugee Award.

Alberto Cairo, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) orthopaedic work in the country, was nominated for his efforts to rehabilitate and empower injured Afghans, including helping many to find work.

The prize, which is named after the late Norwegian polar explorer and Nobel peace laureate Fridtjof Nansen, is awarded annually by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. It honours those who go to extraordinary lengths to protect refugees, displaced and stateless people around the world.

“My final goal for each patient is to be reintegrated into society and for them to live with dignity,’ Cairo told UNCHR, from a rehabilitation centre he oversees in West Kabul.

The former lawyer has led ICRC’s physical rehabilitation programme since 1990, through several changes of governments and ongoing conflict and insecurity. Its seven centres support nearly 178,000 patients, including those disabled through war and disease, and have provided close to 200,000 artificial limbs.

In 2018, the centres saw a record number of new patients, with more than 12,000 seeking help. The figures are a “reflection of the huge levels of need,” Cairo said.

It’s estimated that about 1.5 million of Afghanistan’s estimated 33 million population suffer from some form of disability. ICRC’s programme initially catered only to war victims but, under Cairo’s steer, gradually expanded to include anyone with a disability.  

Through vocational training, micro-loans to start small businesses, and a competitive athletics league, the programme also works to help reintegrate people with disabilities back into their communities. Almost all 750 staff at ICRC’s rehabilitation clinics are former patients, trained and employed as nurses, technicians, physiotherapists and administrators.

“The disabled population suffers from a lack of job, educational and rehab opportunities, resulting in a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem,” said Cairo. “They need more opportunities to restart life.”

Read our interview with Alberto Cairo here.