Members of Surrey-based Child Aid International take part in a religious pilgrimmage in Iraq in late January.

Members of Surrey-based Child Aid International take part in a religious pilgrimmage in Iraq in late January.

The Iraqi experience

Ayaat, 10, is homeless for three months of the year.

During the summer, to save money on rent, she, along with her mother and brother, lives on handouts, camped in a green belt between the two main temples in the Iraqi city of Karbala.

The rest of the year, she lives in a decrepit rental home using a kerosene heater as a makeshift stove.

Her mother Umm Yahya tries to make ends meet by cleaning houses.

Despite their financial desperation, her mother sends Ayaat off to buy sodas as a group of Canadian visitors arrive.

When back, Ayatt doesn’t beg them for anything, although her mother does ask at one point if they might take Ayaat back to Canada to protect her from being married off too young before she’s educated – as happened to Umm Yahya.

Ayatt, poring over books while her mother is interviewed, has a glint in her eye that impresses the visitors.

“I’d like to be a chemistry professor,” she tells them.

Her optimism gives hope to the visitors, members of Surrey-based Child Aid International (CAI), who came to Iraq for their January fundraiser Walk for Life, a three-day, 90-kilometre trek northbound from the city of Najaf to Karbala.

The objective of the trip is to meet some of the 465 children that CAI sponsors, and to join an annual river of humanity – the pilgrimage of up to 10 million people into Karbala during Arba’een, a commemoration of the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad 1,331 years ago.

“We wanted an authentic Iraqi experience,” said Michael Symons, a CAI volunteer from Surrey and one of six on the trip.

The others were Vancouver dentist Dr. Asif Tejani, charity lawyer Blake Bromley, Americans Azra Khalfan and Aatiya Zaidi (the two women on the trip) and Surrey’s Nouri Al-Hassani.

Al-Hassani was on a visit home, and not for the first time.

He fled the country in the mid-1990s after his father and brother were executed by Saddam Hussein’s forces, and spent six years in a Saudi refugee camp before emigrating to Canada.

Al-Hassani founded CAI several years ago after seeing the grim reality of destitute children during a return visit – each with their own story of hardship.

The non-profit society helps children with money for meals, clothing, education and medical attention.

During the Walk for Life fundraiser, the Canadians marched 30 kilometres each day, nine solid hours of walking each day, with the crowds getting denser by the hour as they approached Karbala.

“It’s very hard to describe,” Symons explains. “Behind you, you’ll see thousands of people. In front of you, you’ll see thousands of people, all trying to get to Karbala on this one day.

Crowds during Arba’een have grown since 2003 when the 30-year ban of the Shia pilgrimage under Saddam Hussein was lifted.

Along the route, there was no shortage of free food: Dates, rice, beans, roast meat and tea.

“Breakfast of lamb kebabs in roadside stall between Karbala and Najaf. Delicious,” wrote Bromley on his Twitter feed on Jan. 26.

At night, Iraqi pilgrims set up tents on the roadside (the Canadians were able to stay overnight at the homes of Al-Hassani’s relatives.)

Al-Hassani says that although the group didn’t feel threatened at any point, they were still warned to move away from big crowds or town squares during lunchtime. (Five bombs did go off during the pilgrimage at several locations, killing and wounding dozens.)

The shaven-headed, bandanaed Symons was the only one of the group to generate attention from locals – there was curiosity, and lots of photos taken.

They arrived through several security checkpoints – with Al-Hassani holding a Canadian flag to lead the way for his group – to a city’s whose population was an order of magnitude larger than off-holiday size of 500,000.

For several days, they toured religious sights and met with locals as well as some of the children CAI sponsors – 133 of the Iraqi children are in Karbala; the rest are spread from Basra to the capital of Baghdad.

“Visited 1 ordinary home in Karbala where 50 strangers who had walked from Bagdad slept for free for 3 days,” tweeted Bromley.

Before leaving, the Canadians bought Ayaat’s household a three-burner stove and a propane tank.

Every child sponsored by Child Aid International is cared for by a team of seven volunteers based in two offices in Iraq. About 90 per cent of donations go to the children, who are provided with monthly cheques (for safety, no cash) as well as occasional gifts. For more information or to make a donation, visit