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In a desert camp, Iraqis find aid and zone of trust

Camp Mittica gives average Iraqis access to international aid groups, such as Smile Train volunteers who treated about 100 children with cleft lips and palates.

By James HagengruberCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2008

Smile Train: Mahdi Fadil kissed his son Oct. 28 just before he underwent a procedure to repair his cleft lip. Italian volunteers with Smile Train helped about 100 Iraqi children with cleft lips and palates at the former Italian military base in southern Iraq.

Jed Conklin

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Tallil, Iraq

Mahdi Fadil wasn't sure how his family could ever afford the operation to fix 6-year-old Husain's cleft lip.

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"We have no money. And there was nowhere else to go," says Mr. Fadil. "In the 1970s, Iraq had the best medical system in the Middle East. Now we have the worst in the world."

But late last month he sat next to his son, stroking his curly brown hair as he recovered from an operation in a southern Iraq military camp. He was among about 100 young Iraqis who were helped by the team of Italian volunteers from Smile Train.

The procedure has a big impact on children's lives, but the team's work also helps repair something much larger: trust. Camp Mittica is thought to be the only site giving average Iraqis easy access to international aid groups.

"This little facility allows us to leap ahead – years ahead – of what we would have otherwise been able to do," says Mike Bunning, a US State Department official there. "It's the step we have been unable to take. This camp has been a bastion of hope." Camp Mittica has hosted volunteers ranging from teers ranging from the Italian plastic surgeons with Smile Train to a foundation aimed at helping people diagnosed with dwarfism to a team of agricultural experts from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The Texas team was at the site recently to help local dairy farmers set up the region's first modern milk and cheese production facility.

"There's very little security here – we don't need it," says Dr. Bunning, who is the medical officer for the Dhi Qar Provincial reconstruction team. "This works as a neutral zone where everyone can come together."

The blast-wall-surrounded camp near the city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar Province once served as an Italian military base. Now, it houses a mobile hospital and a series of trailers with hospital beds, laboratories, meeting rooms, and classrooms. The main thing missing, Bunning says, is more help from the rest of the world.

"Trying to find those organizations willing to come here is difficult," he says, adding, "This is a very good place to work. It's secure."