In Iraq, organ donation is still taboo.
by Portia Ladrido
The illegal organ trade in Iraq has been alive and kicking. This is chiefly due to desperate living conditions of Iraqees, especially since about 22.5 per cent of the country population lives below the poverty line. Gangs in the country would even pay £7,000 in exchange for a kidney, making Iraq one of the biggest hubs for organ trade in the Middle East.
Zanyar Salih is the founder of Gift a Life, an organisation that seeks to educate people on the perils of illegal organ trade as well as to encourage them to become official organ donors. As someone who studied medicine, he says that healing people is more than just being a good doctor.
“I believe that being a doctor is not just about diagnosing and treating patients because no matter how good you are as a doctor in treating a disease; you won’t be able to do your job properly if your society is not ready to accept your way of treatment,” he says.
In Iraq, and in many Muslim countries, Zanyar shares how the concept of organ donation can be culturally taboo that even when it is needed, many Iraqees veer away from it. After being exposed to many other practices on organ donation across the globe, he thought of replicating the programmes he’d seen abroad and then execute these systems in Iraq.
INKLINE talked to Zanyar to know more about his organisation and the kind of education about organ donation that Iraqees and the rest of the world need to know about.
INKLINE: Can you course us through how Gift A Life started? Why did you choose to focus your enterprise on this?
Zanyar Salih: I used to watch a medical TV Show when I was a child which was about life of surgeons. I still watch that same show. One of the things that was very exciting for me was organ transplantation. It was like magic for me how the doctors were saving people’s lives through organ transplantation.
When I was 16, I went to a close by hospital to be registered as an organ donor. That was when I realised that life in my country and working in our hospitals were nothing like what I had seen on TV. I went home surprised and shocked having realized that we didn’t have such thing as registering to be an organ donor. Even after that, I couldn’t stop thinking about organ transplantation, and that is one of the reasons why I started studying medicine. I was an exchange student in the United States in 2015. During that time, I visited several universities and hospitals.
I tried to see how the system is in other countries and learn as much as possible from it. When I came back home, I realised that we don’t have any programme to support the people who need organ donation, and we don’t have programmes to encourage people to register as organ donors. Nevertheless, there are people who are desperate for it, and because of poor education there are also people who are willing to sell an organ illegally; and so, I started the ‘Gift a life’ initiative as a way to encourage people to register as organ donors via campaigns, activities and events, also to raise awareness about the consequences of illegal organ trade.
I: What are the challenges that you faced when setting the organisation up? And what are the usual challenges that you still encounter now?
Z: I live in a country where religious leaders have great powers. If you start a project that they are not okay with, it could be a real challenge. I tried to talk to the leaders of different religious groups. I soon realised that the reason that some of them didn’t want to support us was entirely coming from misunderstanding. They didn’t have a clear picture of what we were trying to do. After discussing the matter with them some of them even offered to help us.
The number of refugees is increasing in my region and many of these people don’t even have jobs to support themselves. Because of poverty and poor education, there are, unfortunately, people who are willing to sell an organ without even knowing the function of the organ they are giving up. Another challenge is that it is still very difficult for someone to register to be a donor. They have to go through so many hard steps. Even if someone registered a donor, it is still very hard for the hospital to make the decision to use their organs after they pass away.
I: How pervasive is the organ trafficking issue in Iraq? What revealing facts did you learn from setting up your organisation?
Z: Trading organs is happening more commonly in the poorer communities of the country. The sad part is the government is doing nothing about selling and buying human organs. As long as the donor signs the papers, no one cares whether that organ was sold or not.
I: How do you measure the effectivity of Gift A Life?
Z: A decade ago, organ donation was not even a thing, now the number of people who are registering to be organ donors is steadily increasing. Unfortunately, because of poverty and poor education among especially the refugees and the lack of a law against it, there are still people who are selling and buying organs. We are trying to put a stop to it. We are holding events, workshops, lectures, for those people who are in danger, trying to educate them about the consequences of organ trade but this continues to be a very difficult task without the government working on the issue
I: Who are the people that you usually engage with to carry out your education programmes?
Z: I mostly depend on my friends. I have a large network of friends that includes students, lawyers, teachers, doctors, journalists, and many friends who work for humanitarian organisations especially the ones that are working with the refugees.
“I hope for the media to work more on the issue and I hope that organisations and governments around the world start collaborations in order to solve this problem.”
I: What do you hope for Gift A Life to become?
Z: I hope that in the near future we can eradicate human organ trade in the country. As for donation, I hope that one day we can convince the majority of our people to support us and for the government to make the process easier. This may seem like a dream for now but I also hope that one day my country follows the ‘’opt out’’ system where everyone is considered to be a potential donor except the ones who choose to opt out.
I: What do people around the world need to know about the issue you are addressing? Why is this important?
Z: This is not an issue only in my country. Many of developing and even some of the developed countries have similar problems. The situation is much worse in some other countries. I believe that it is a big issue that we are facing today yet it gets so little attention. The solution to this problem is quite similar if not the same for every country. I hope for the media to work more on the issue and I hope that organisations and governments around the world start collaborations in order to solve this problem.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.