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:: Article nr. 52960 sent on 28-mar-2009 05:16 ECT
IRAQ: Poor sell kidneys just to survive
Abu Zahra, who washes cars for a living, is planning to sell one of his kidneys for US$10,000. Nizar Latif / The National
March 27, 2009
BAGHDAD // Abu Zahra arrived in Baghdad two years ago, coming north from the city of Amarah. He brought along his wife, three daughters, a son and his dreams of getting a job that would end their life of poverty.
He found work, washing cars, but with earnings of less than US$10 (Dh37) a day, it did nothing to make them richer. So he is planning to sell one of his kidneys.
"I had hopes at first, but things were no better here," he said. "We lived in small, dirty rooms, I had this idea that I would be able to save a little money and slowly build myself up.
"It is impossible. All of the money I would earn was spent before it was even in my hands."
One day last year a man came to the car wash, in southern Baghdad, on the main motorway running south, and spoke to the workers there, according to Abu Zahra. He told them they would be paid $10,000 in exchange for a healthy kidney.
"After that I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I think of what I could do with that amount of money," he said, standing in dirty roadside area where he still hoses down cars. "I’m worried about it but I could change my children’s lives with that money. Maybe it’s not such a difficult choice. I can either stay poor forever or sell my kidney."
He is far from the only Iraqi facing such choices. Despite Iraq’s massive wealth – it has among the largest oil reserves in the world – poverty is rife. A 2007 study by the United Nations found one-third of Iraqis lived in poverty, with five per cent of the population in extreme poverty.
The situation is especially bad in southern Iraq, pushing many to head north to the capital in search of work.
But regardless of improvements in the security situation, the economy remains in dire straits. That has not stopped the well-connected elite from amassing huge fortunes but it has crippled those at the bottom of society.
With living expenses permanently on the rise, poverty is a trap few can escape from. Without political connections to get a government job, and without family wealth, there are few legal ways for a person to raise their standard of living.
Some turn to crime and violence – poverty and lack of opportunities have been cited as key driving forces behind the insurgency.
Others, lured by the prospects of being paid more for an organ than they would get for 30 years of work, sell body parts.
"This is the result of economic pressures and the failure of the state to provide alternative ways out of poverty," said Rahim al Tamimi, an Iraqi social scientist based in the capital.
"There are some people who will make a decision to sell a kidney with humanitarian motives in mind – they know it could help save someone else’s life. But the major motivation is poverty. People are desperate, and do not have any options."
With even harsher economic times ahead as oil prices plummet – the Iraqi government is looking to cut its 2009 budget by ten per cent – increasing numbers may resort to desperate measures. Analysts say violence may rise if the economy fails. There may also be an increase in the number of people willing to sell an organ for money.
Little information is available about the organ trade in Iraq. According to a 2004 report in La Nouvelle Republique, an Algerian daily newspaper, Iraqi kidneys were popular among Algerian patients seeking transplants in Jordanian private hospitals.
There are no figures detailing how many people sell their organs in Iraq and organ donation is not illegal. Nor is paying for an organ.
"It wasn’t a difficult choice to make in the end," said 25 year-old Fadel Abdul Wahid, a Baghdad taxi driver who sold his kidney. "I thought about it a thousand times. I lived in poverty and this at least offered a way out of it."
After medical checks, he was admitted to a hospital in the city and had the organ removed and transplanted to someone who was going to die without it.
"That helped me make my choice," he said. "I know that I am earning money and helping myself, but I am also doing the right thing because I am helping someone who is sick."
Paid almost $10,000 for his kidney, he spent the money on a Toyota car which he now uses as a private taxi.
"I have a chance to earn money now, before I had no such chance," he said. "It’s not something I regret at all. I feel fine, my health is good, and I am earning better money for my family. Our circumstances are slowly improving."
Another immigrant to Baghdad from southern Iraq, 27-year-old Ihsan Mekad, said he had also decided to sell his kidney after years of scraping by with manual or menial jobs.
"A lot of workers are doing this," he said.
"It’s a way out. I’ve got a rich family with a man who needs a new kidney and they’ll give me $12,000 for mine. It’s something I’d rather not do, but I will.
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