Mahdi Fadil wasn't sure how his family could ever afford the operation to fix 6-year-old Husain's cleft lip.
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."
Although humanitarian groups were abundant in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, the ensuing violence prompted most groups to flee the country. Apart from a small contingent from the United Nations and a handful of other groups, including Mercy Corps, few international organizations have returned, says Shirouk Hamid, an Iraqi who has worked with provincial leaders in Baghdad to rebuild the country's civil society.
"Iraqis were isolated for two decades. In one morning, they woke up and found the whole world was around them inside Iraq," says Ms. Hamid. "Of course it made a difference, but then everybody left."
Despite the danger, many homegrown organizations continued working to reconstruct their country and improve the lives of their fellow citizens, says Hamid, who helped organize a women's rights group. Violence has dropped – especially in the south – but not enough to prompt the return of aid groups.
Even in nearby Muthanna, one of the safest provinces, diplomats and construction workers still wear flak jackets and travel in heavily armored convoys.
"Everybody says the security situation is improving, but you can see how the security measures and the fears are still here. You still have to wear this and this," says Hamid, pointing to the helmet and body armor she was required to don while visiting a construction site along the Euphrates River.
Hamid, who now advises the Iraqi government and US officials on water projects, says Camp Mittica is proving to be the ideal place for both sides to demonstrate goodwill while shedding five years of fear. A leap of faith is needed, she says, but outside aid groups will be received warmly by Iraqis.
"They will protect anybody who offers them services," she says.
The visit by Smile Train last month was the group's second time at Camp Mittica. On its first visit in April, Iraqis were apprehensive and no girls were brought in for medical care, says Francesca Pacelli, clinical coordinator for the nonprofit group.
This time, some 300 girls and boys from across southern Iraq showed up.
"When they know we're here, everybody is coming now with problems, but we can't treat everything," says Ms. Pacelli as families waited outside the hospital trailer in hopes of seeing a doctor.
Plans are now under way to expand the camp. Bunning, the provincial reconstruction team's medical officer, says the experiment in trust appears to be succeeding.