MU grad helps heal hearts in Iraq through Preemptive Love Coalition

Sunday, August 8, 2010 | 5:44 p.m. CDT; updated 6:30 p.m. CDT, Sunday, August 8, 2010
Photo submitted by Claire Baker and shot by Lydia Bullock

Claire Baker, center, with the other summer interns who traveled to Iraq to work with the Preemptive Love Coalition.

COLUMBIA — For MU grad Claire Baker, a desire to help others has inspired volunteer efforts that have taken her around the world.

Her career goals still aren't concrete, but she loves working with families.


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"Whenever people ask what I want to do for a career, I could never name something specifically," she said. "All I could say is that I want to serve and take care of people who aren't given the resources to do that for themselves."

When a friend told her about the Preemptive Love Coalition, which helps children in Iraq receive life-saving heart surgery, Baker jumped at the opportunity to spend the summer as a PLC intern. Now back in Missouri, she finds herself thinking constantly of the children in a war-torn country for whom vital health care is out of reach because of poverty and ethnic and religious tensions.

About Claire Baker

Raised in Austin, Texas, Baker moved to Missouri to attend MU. She graduated in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies, with concentrations in human development and family studies, philosophy and religious studies.

As a student, she recognized a desire to volunteer and help others, a passion strongly influenced by friends, she said.

After graduation, Baker put her education to good use. She spent nine months in Moshi, Tanzania, teaching second grade at a primary school. She also started a health class for the students and worked in a local mother and child clinic assisting with basic medical care.

When she returned to the United States, Baker joined the staff at Covenant House Missouri, working with homeless and at-risk youth at their drop-in center. She taught life skills and health and nutrition classes, continuing a personal campaign to do her part to help keep children in need healthy.

Now 25, she is a teacher's assistant for the Special School District of St. Louis, working with students with special needs in an elementary school. Her teacher's schedule frees up her summers, allowing her to take advantage of opportunities like working with PLC.

"Comparatively, it seemed ridiculous to bum around for the summer when I had an opportunity like this," Baker said.

About the Preemptive Love Coalition

According to its website, PLC estimates there are thousands of Iraqi children suffering the effects of heart disease. While the exact cause of the high-rate of heart disease among children is still a subject of speculation, three factors are considered to be major contributors:

  • Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks and experiments on the Kurds.
  • United Nations sanctions that resulted in corruption and intentional withholding of essential services and led to malnutrition.
  • Marriage within extended families.

For the past three years, PLC has been working with Iraqi families to help fund the life-saving surgery so many children need.

Through its mission to provide these surgeries, PLC hopes to facilitate communication among ethnic and religious communities at odds. By sending both Kurdish and Arab children to surgery side by side, and celebrating the children together, PLC hopes to mobilize these groups toward local solutions for their differences.

"Once you have a positive experience or at least a face and a name of a person from a group previously only defined by your own stereotypes, it makes it easier to begin to break the stereotypes down," Baker said.

In using the Anadolu Medical Center in Istanbul, Turkey, for the surgeries, PLC is working to promote cooperation between groups in Turkey and Kurdistan that have long been in conflict.

"Many Kurds know of people who have been killed by Turks and therefore can be quite nervous to take their child into Turkey for surgery," Baker said.

But after witnessing the care and kindness with which the Turkish doctors and nurses work to save the lives of Kurdish children, the parents can take a new story with them back to Iraq — a story of cooperation and kindness rather than racism and fighting, Baker said.

Baker was part of a 10-intern team that tackled a variety of tasks for PLC while in Iraq. Baker's job was to create a curriculum for the self-help groups PLC wanted to start for the mothers of the children involved in their program. The goal was to provide the women with education, spanning topics from heart defects to coping techniques for stress, and to create a sense of community among them.

Culture shock

When she first arrived in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in late May, Baker was surprised by how much quieter Iraqi culture is.

"I never realized how loud American cities and American people are before," she said.

Gender inequality is still present in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the northern part of the country where PLC is active. Baker said she had to be more reserved in her interactions with the Iraqi people, particularly with the men.

"There are a lot of implications in your actions," she said. As a woman, she had to remember even subtle actions could imply things she didn't mean.

"If we were with our male roommates, we shouldn't be leading conversations with Kurdish men; the male roommates should be," Baker said. "We (women) always sat in the back of taxis and couldn't go to tea shops like the guys could."

Baker said she was not supposed to look a man she didn't know well in the eye or be too forward in conversation, actions that could be construed as disrespectful.

But a reserved demeanor did not mean a lack of kindness.

"It was surprising to see how taken aback we all (the interns) were concerning the huge amount of gracious hospitality the Kurdish people have," Baker said. "It showed how unusual it is in American culture to serve one another."

Baker encountered such hospitality while visiting the family of Mohammad Star, a 10-year-old boy who had surgery last November. Mohammad and his family live in a village in the mountains of Kurdistan.

"His family's home reminded me of 'Swiss Family Robinson' and involved climbing a tiny, winding staircase made of clay and dirt to enter," Baker said.

Though the language barrier didn't allow her to verbally communicate with the Star family, Baker felt an amazing amount of warmth.

"It's different because their graciousness is shown through quiet actions instead of words," she said. "There was a sincerity I have never seen before."

Collaborative funding and medical missions

According to its website, PLC is able to facilitate the heart surgeries at a cost 60 to 70 percent below market prices. Partnerships with Atlasjet Airlines and the Anadolu Medical Center allow PLC to keep the cost of surgery to about $5,000, including airfare for the child and a parent.

PLC takes a unique approach to funding surgeries, asking both the family and Iraqi businesses and charities to contribute toward the cost of a child's surgery. Remaining expenses are covered through donations and the sale of Klash, hand-knit shoes made by local Iraqis according to fair trade principles.

PLC works hard to be transparent with how it spends money, even providing on its website a download of its most recent IRS Form 990 showing annual financial information.

"When someone gives to PLC, there is a tangible difference that is made," Baker said. "A child is allowed to live a healthier life, a family gets to keep their son or daughter, and there is cooperation between communities that are often times told they are each other's enemy."

Donors can contribute to a child's surgery, then track the progress of that child through surgery and after he or she returns home on PLC's blog.

In addition to continuing to send children to Istanbul for surgery, PLC is sponsoring Remedy Mission Aug. 14-28. It will bring an international pediatric heart surgery team to Iraq, making surgeries even more affordable by eliminating travel costs. The goal is to provide 30 children with surgery while simultaneously providing much needed on-the-job training for local Iraqi doctors.

More than a single story

After her time in Iraqi Kurdistan, Baker emphasizes the importance of looking beyond the single story of a situation.

"We often hear a single story about Iraq and usually that story is one of war," she said.

However, there are many other stories of Iraq. The people are gracious and welcoming, and many children suffer from life-threatening heart defects with little hope of receiving the treatment they need because of economic factors and ethnic prejudices.

Baker said her experience has encouraged her to be more open-minded.

"Now, when faced with something I am unfamiliar with or something I don't agree with, I would rather be curious, ask questions and listen before anything else," she said.

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Gianna Volpe August 9, 2010 | 7:46 a.m.

Great story, lots of good information- I think the sub-headers really work to organize the information in a constructive way, though I think the last(?) sub-header says it best: there is more than one story in here

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