Dedicated to the Disabled

Dedicated to the Disabled

Once an Italian lawyer, Alberto Cairo now helps disabled Afghans live normally again with artificial limbs. He considers himself very lucky.

Alberto Cairo, once a debonair lawyer in his native Turin, Italy, is almost certainly the most celebrated Western relief official in Afghanistan, at least among Afghans.

Cairo heads the orthopedic rehabilitation program of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a job dedicated to helping disabled Afghans live normally again by equipping them with artificial legs and arms. To the generation who have been beneficiaries of his relief work since 1990, he is known simply as “Mr. Alberto.”

He left his homeland, Italy, and a career in law to become a physiotherapist. The choice was prompted in part by a family loss and grew from a teenage experience in Italy, when he joined a school trip to a rehabilitation center.

Since the Red Cross launched the program in 1988, the centers have provided prostheses to nearly 90,000 Afghans. Between a third and a quarter of those are thought to have suffered disabling injuries from 30 years of warfare, beginning with the Soviet invasion. Many Red Cross patients were victims of the 10 million mines strewn across the landscape during the Soviet period.

Cairo is insistently frugal in his own life, giving up much of his salary to patients and ensuring that all but a handful of the jobs at the centers go to disabled Afghans, not foreigners.

As evidenced in this New York Times video profile, his passion for his patients is reciprocal, and nowhere is that more evident than out on the Kabul center’s open-air testing ground, a concrete platform where men, women and children, some standing for the first time in years, learn to walk again with artificial limbs. Tears flow readily, and much of the gratitude flows to “Mr. Alberto.”

Under an expansion led by Cairo, there are now six centers, in Kabul and five regional cities. “What I’m doing here is so rewarding,” he said. “For me, it’s perfect. I feel I have been very, very lucky.”

Afghans of all ethnic and political stripes, even the Taliban, seem likely to count Cairo as one foreigner who left the country better than he found it. But Cairo says it is he, more than his Afghan patients, who has been the greatest beneficiary of his years in Kabul.

Length: 5:02

Video: Adam B. Ellick
Photography: Tyler Hicks
Story: John F. Burns