Changing the world, one piece of litter at a time

Opinion: Columns

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By JOHN RICE

We have residents here who are dedicated to cleaning up litter. These community-minded people can find a kindred spirit in an unlikely place — Baghdad. A courageous young woman named Alyaa Shakir has founded a movement to clean the streets of the Iraqi capital. 

Alyaa didn't start out to become a community activist. The 28-year-old simply wanted to break down barriers that women face in Iraq's male-dominated society. A brilliant student, she obtained her master's degree in geology from the University of Baghdad. It is rare for a female to obtain a degree in Iraq, but Alyaa was just getting started. 

She persistently applied for the university's PhD program until she was finally accepted. In the meantime, she married Laith Ihsan, an engineer with an expertise in environmental safety. The problem facing these newlyweds was they could not find jobs in their fields.

Instead they joined other young Iraqis in anti-government protests that began on Oct. 1 in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Iraqi soldiers have been ruthless in putting down these protests. They've killed hundreds of Alyaa's comrades. She was on the frontlines with her husband when troops fired a tear gas canister at them.

The explosion damaged Alyaa's hearing and caused chemical burns to her husband's face. So Alyaa chose a new tactic to protest Iraq's policies. She peacefully cleans the streets, where the protests are taking place. Culturally-speaking, Iraqis are not tidy. They tend to toss their trash everywhere. Alyaa is a clean freak. She printed up anti-littering fliers to pass out and got down on the pavement to pick up trash.

The litter problem was compounded by the protests. To counteract the effects of tear gas, protesters pour cola down their faces. There are empty Pepsi containers strewn everywhere in the streets. A photo of Alyaa cleaning the streets went viral. Her pink gym shoes became famous and she became known as the "Protector of Baghdad."

She risks her life daily to clean the streets and has attracted over 1,000 volunteers. Her efforts have created a cleaning movement. Being a female activist in Baghdad is risky. Besides enduring attacks from government forces, Alyaa's followers have been targeted by militia groups. Three of her cleaning crew have been kidnapped. Alyaa has a strong personality, though, and doesn't back down from anyone. She even has a logo — depicting a person holding a mop and a bucket.

I know about Alyaa's story because her sister, Ella, worked for me. Alyaa and I connected by email. Ella is a hero herself, having served as a translator for U.S. troops on patrol in Iraq.

It was encouraging for Alyaa to learn we have like-minded people here. She thinks it's ironic that Americans are punished by having to pick up litter as part of community service. She considers it a privilege to clean and hose down the pavement, so that protesters don't have to deal with filth. 

"After the revolution, we won't throw garbage," Alyaa declared. She also wrote a personal message to the residents of Forest Park: "Love your village as you would your house, and don't ever look at it as a chore. If you saw the amount of garbage me and my crew are picking up every day from the kindness of our hearts, you would never litter in public."

Some may think that litter is trivial compared to other problems Iraqis face. But powerful movements begin in small ways — like a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Alyaa noted how cleaning can destroy stereotypes. "Men give women a helping hand in cleaning without feeling shame." 

"If there is one thing this revolution taught me," Alyaa said, "it's that change starts with the people. Our voice is heard through our actions."

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